Georgia’s Supreme Court Holds Wrongful Death Lawsuit Limited by Previous Personal Injury Settlement

In a recent case, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that a wrongful death lawsuit can be limited by a previous personal injury settlement. The case is an important decision for Georgia personal injury and wrongful death plaintiffs.

The Facts of the Case

A woman was in a car accident that left her in a permanent coma. Her husband filed a personal injury lawsuit on her behalf against Toyota, alleging that her Toyota vehicle had a defective seatbelt latch and door-locking mechanism. The case went to trial, but before the jury returned a verdict, the plaintiff and Toyota entered into a “high-low” settlement agreement.

The agreement provided that if the jury found in favor of Toyota, the plaintiff would still recover a certain amount of money. However, if the jury found in favor of the plaintiff, Toyota would only be liable up to a certain amount of money. Thus, the agreement guaranteed the plaintiff a recovery, but a limited one.

The jury found in the plaintiff’s favor, and awarded the plaintiff $400,000 for past medical expenses, $6 million for future expenses, and $30 million for pain and suffering. Toyota paid the plaintiff the amount agreed to under the settlement agreement. The plaintiff (through her husband) signed a written release, dismissing her personal injury lawsuit with prejudice. The release stated that Toyota was released of liability for the claims and damages arising from the accident, except for any claim for the plaintiff’s wrongful death. The plaintiff died more than 20 years later, and her husband and children subsequently filed a wrongful death claim against Toyota.

The Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court of Georgia held that the woman’s husband and children were limited by the settlement agreement the woman’s guardian had signed in her previous personal injury suit. The court decided that damages which were recovered or recoverable in a personal injury suit cannot later be recovered in a wrongful death suit. Although the wrongful death claim was not settled by the personal injury settlement agreement, the plaintiff was compensated for the economic and non-economic damages stemming from her disability. In addition, despite the fact that there were different plaintiffs, the claim was derivative of her personal injury claim.

The court determined that the components of a wrongful death claim that are barred are those that were recovered or recoverable in fully-settled personal injury claim. The court explained that in many circumstances, there are substantial damages that can be recovered in a subsequent wrongful death claim, because most injuries are not completely disabling, and many plaintiffs still have the capacity to earn money and enjoy life.

The court explained that in this case, where the injury resulted in a permanent coma, it was more difficult to determine the additional damages resulting from the death. Yet, the court determined that even in these cases, there is still value to a person’s life while in a coma. Therefore, the husband and children could still recover the additional damages resulting from the woman’s death, in addition to burial expenses.

Wrongful Death Claims

In Georgia, under OCGA § 51-4-2, wrongful death claims can be filed by a surviving spouse or child to recover “the full value of the life of the decedent.” A parent or personal representative may instead bring a claim in some cases. In this case, the court explained that the gist of a wrongful death claim is an injury to the spouse or child. The statute was meant to apply to the spouse or child of a person who could not pursue a personal injury claim as a result of the person’s death—that is, the law allows recovery for a person’s injuries despite that person’s death.

Contact a Georgia Personal Injury Attorney

If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury, contact a Georgia personal injury attorney as soon as possible. At the McAleer Law Firm, our attorneys are ready to fight for the rights of accident victims in the Atlanta metro area and other Georgia communities, including Alpharetta, Conyers, Decatur, Gainesville, Lawrenceville, Macon, Norcross, Roswell, Sandy Springs, and Stone Mountain. We will fight to get you the compensation you deserve, including damages for lost wages, lost quality of life, as well as past and future medical expenses. Call us at 404-622-5337, or contact us through our online form for a free consultation.

See More Posts:

Georgia Court Discusses Plaintiff’s Potential Failure to Comply with Terms of Insurance Contract, Georgia Injury Attorney Blog, June 11, 2018.

Georgia Court Discusses How Fraud Can Extend the Statute of Limitations in Recent Medical Malpractice Case, Georgia Injury Attorney Blog, May 9, 2018.