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Punitive Damages In Wrongful Death Cases

August 11, 2023

By Thomas McCutcheon

Alabama is the only state in the United States that only allows punitive damages in death cases.  In every other state, compensatory and punitive damages are allowed.  In other words, if an RN is killed by a drunk driver and they have a lifetime earning expectancy of over a million dollars, juries in other states can consider that in making an award to the family, but not in Alabama.  

Alabama will not allow a jury to consider compensatory damages such as earnings or earning capacity in death cases.  

Punitive Damages In Wrongful Death Cases

Alabama has a procedure that calls for a circuit court after a jury verdict to review the amount awarded and consider several factors such as the conduct of the person who caused the death, their financial condition and the likelihood of preventing similar conduct in the future.  

In Alabama death cases, circuit court judges are directed to consider reducing the judgment in a procedure known as remittitur, but not allowed to increase a  jury award through additur.  

In really big cases Joel and I will hear defense lawyers grump around and say that the largest death verdict ever affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court is around seven million dollars.  That’s an old case and we always talk about inflation because that’s relevant and the case they are referring to is about 15 years old.  

This past week, the Supremes led by Judge Mendheim confirmed an award of punitive damages of ten million dollars by a circuit court judge who had reduced the jury verdict from 35 million to ten million.  There were dissenting opinions and the entire decision is 121 pages.  

mccutcheon & hamner

It is somewhat satisfying to see that our argument about how inflation has impacted fixed sums and that the economic impact of the same amount ten years ago would be diminished through inflation.  The plaintiff had to present an expert witness on inflation and the consumer price index to persuade circuit court to award ten million dollars as opposed to the old seven-million-dollar rule of thumb award that Alabama had followed for over ten years.   Reach out to a personal injury lawyer.

It is noteworthy that the death occurred on June 5, 2014 and it cost the plaintiff’s lawyer $323,438.00 to prosecute the case.  

Buckle up, drive safely and as always, your referrals are appreciated!  256-764-0112

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