By Miriam A. Friedman, J.D.
The damages that could be recovered in a wrongful death action brought by survivors of a vehicle occupant who died many years after her injuries in an auto accident had placed her in a coma were limited by a settlement entered into by the occupant’s guardian in a previous personal injury lawsuit, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in answering two questions certified to it by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. According to the state high court, the components barred from recovery in the wrongful death action were those recovered or recoverable in the earlier, fully-settled personal injury action (Bibbs v. Toyota Motor Corp., June 18, 2018, Blackwell, K.).
After a car accident in which a motor vehicle occupant sustained a head injury that left her in a coma, her husband, acting as her legal guardian, filed a personal injury lawsuit on her behalf against Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., asserting that her 1986 Toyota YR2 van had a defective seatbelt latch and door-locking mechanism and that these defects caused her injuries. Before the jury returned a verdict, the parties entered into a "high-low" settlement agreement. The jury awarded the woman substantial damages, including more than $400,000 for past medical expenses, $6 million for future life care expenses, and $30 million for past and future pain and suffering. The auto manufacturer paid the amount required under the settlement agreement, and the guardian executed a written release that incorporated the settlement agreement.
After the woman died, more than twenty years later, her husband and surviving children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the auto manufacturer, seeking damages for the full value of her life. The district court noted its uncertainty under Georgia law about the extent to which the settlement of the earlier personal injury lawsuit limited the damages recoverable in this wrongful death suit, and it certified two questions to the appellate court. The first question was: "Under Georgia law, are the damages that may be recovered in a wrongful death action brought by survivors of a decedent limited by a settlement entered into by the decedent’s guardian in a previous personal injury suit settling all claims that were or could have been asserted in that suit?" The second question asked if the answer to the first question was yes, then "what components of wrongful death damages are barred?"
"Double recovery" considerations. The state high court noted at the outset that because the wrongful death claim was "wholly derivative" of the original personal injury claim, the husband and children of the decedent only could recover those damages that she could have recovered if she had asserted the claim herself. Having fully settled her personal injury lawsuit, the decedent had been "fully compensated for the fact that she was, and would remain for the rest of her life, totally and permanently disabled." As such, because the decedent could not again recover damages for her personal injuries, to the extent that those damages were recovered or recoverable in the earlier lawsuit, neither could her survivors.
The court distinguished Spradlin v. Georgia R. & Elec. Co., 139 Ga. 575 (77 SE 799) (1913), which was a personal injury case that was litigated to judgment only after the death of the original plaintiff, while a separate wrongful death suit was pending. In the instant case, however, the personal injury action was litigated and fully resolved many years prior to the death of the decedent. At the time of the settlement, neither the parties nor the jury could have known how long the woman would live. Thus, for purposes of calculating damages, it only could be assumed that she would live out her expected life span, based on mortality tables or other evidence. The court concluded that although wrongful death damages and personal injury damages are often distinguishable, they sometimes overlap, and where they do overlap, double recovery is impermissible. Therefore, the court answered the first certified question in the affirmative, finding that damages in a wrongful death action are limited by the decedent’s full settlement of her earlier personal injury action.
Barred components. Addressing the second certified question, the court found that "those components that were recovered or recoverable in the fully-settled personal injury action" were barred in the instant wrongful death case. Although, in many cases, this bar often would leave substantial damages to be recovered in wrongful death, because the injury here had left the victim in a permanent coma, it was "more difficult to identify additional damages flowing merely from the additional fact of death." As such, the court saw no reason to conclude that "anything less than the full measure of economic damages" had been recoverable at the time of the personal injury case, and, therefore, found "no economic damages left to recover in wrongful death."
With regard to non-economic damages, however, the court declined to say as a matter of law that there was "no difference in value between living in a permanent coma and not living at all, even from the decedent’s perspective." As such, the court concluded that the question of "the residual value, if any, of [the decedent’s] life to her while she was in a coma" was to be "properly litigated in the district court."
The case is No. S18Q0075.
Attorneys: Robert David Cheeley (Butler, Wooten, Cheeley & Peak, LLP) for Anthony R. Bibbs. Joel H. Smith (Bowman and Brooke, LLP) for Toyota Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.
Companies: Toyota Motor Corp.; Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.
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