Georgia Wrongful Death Laws
That is where the wrongful death laws in Georgia comes into play. The law in Georgia was designed to punish people when they act carelessly and it results in a fatality. We will discuss some basic tenets of the law and give you an understanding of the legal issues involved.
The Basics of Georgia Wrongful Death Law
Wrongful death cases are serious and can have a value in the millions of dollars in certain circumstances. These are the key things to know:
- The law identifies the person allowed to make the claim, first the spouse, then the kids, then the parents, then it's up to the Court.
- The statute of limitations is two years from the date of the death in most cases.
- You can sue for the economic value (earnings) and the value of the persons life as seen from the deceased's perspective. Did they live a life rich in happiness and experience?
- Sometimes you can sue for pain and suffering before death and the fear of death.
Before you go to these meetings, you should have a working understanding of the law. Georgia law creates two separate and distinct claims that may be brought; the "statutory wrongful death" claim by the family members and the claim of the estate of the deceased.
The Statutory Wrongful Death Claim
Traditionally, the claim that carries the most weight and commands higher verdicts is the statutory claim for the value of the human life.
There are strict rules about which family members hold the right to bring the claim and choose the lawyer. The first holder is always the spouse of the deceased, if there is one, and then the children. O.C.G.A. §51-4-2. If there is a spouse and children, the spouse holds the claim but must share any proceeds with the children pursuant to the statute.
If there is no wife or child then the statutory claim goes to the parents of the deceased. O.C.G.A. §19-7-1.
Finally, if there is no spouse, child or parent, then a personal representative may be appointed pursuant to O.C.G.A. §51-4-5 to file on behalf of the "next of kin." It is only in this circumstance that the siblings of the deceased would have the claim. For example, we handled a case where the only living relatives were nephews and the girlfriend of the deceased wanted to be the representative. In that situation, the Court needs to appoint the girlfriend as the representative and then the nephews need to consent. Any money recovered would flow to the heirs.
The analysis who decides is determined by Georgia's rules on next of kin analyzing the degrees of relation with the decedent.
The value of the life has two aspects; the economic value and the value of the victim's life to themselves. Georgia is unique in giving the jury the ability to weigh and consider the true value of a person's life. It is almost a weighing of the human soul.
In a case involving a family from Smyrna Georgia, Mr. Simon collected over 200 photos of the deceased from childhood through his 50's, when he passed. He scoured family videos and spent days getting to know the family folklore so that the jury would know this man like a brother when it came time to assign a dollar value to his life. Anyone can hire an economist to value the economics on a life but an experienced lawyer is a storyteller that can explain the highlights and dreams of a human life to the jury. That is the only way that a jury can fairly evaluate the value of a needless loss of life.The Estate's ClaimsThe second part of the wrongful death case is the estate's claim. The Estate holds the claim for any medical bills, pain and suffering and funeral expenses. In cases where the deceased survived for a period of time after the injury, this can be a valuable component of the claim.
One heart wrenching aspect of the estate's claim arises when the deceased could tell before the injury that they were in mortal danger. Juries understand that if a decedent could tell they were going to die, that time "stretches" and the agony of knowing that death is approaching is horrible. A skilled lawyer will know how to explore these non-obvious issues to ensure that the survivors make a fair recovery.
Should I Even Hire a Lawyer to Handle the Wrongful Death Case?Although you are in the grieving process, you should not wait to hire an attorney if the death resulted from the kind of accident where evidence can disappear or if there is limited insurance and multiple claimants. Here are a few of the warning signs that should alert you to the fact that swift action is important:
Evidence and Witnesses Disappear Quickly
For example it only takes one good rain to wash away skid marks. When you hire a Georgia wrongful death lawyer to represent your family, they will analyze the facts of the collision to determine whether it makes sense to deploy and expert collision reconstructionist to the scene and they will take photos to lock down evidence. Typically we also send letters warning the at fault parties not to allow evidence to "disappear", which protects the client in case it later does.
If the Accident Involved Multiple Injured People, You are in a Race to Access the Available InsuranceIf there are multiple people hurt in the wreck, you also need to move quickly. For example, in a case involving a Georgia student killed in a DUI crash in the end of 2010, there were three insurance policies in play and two wrongful death claims and four serious orthopedic injuries. The crash involved two drunk drivers who collided and then crossed the centerline, killing our client.
Fortunately the client hired our law firm on the wrongful death claim within one week of the client's passing. We sent an immediate demand for the policy limits on each policy and were able to beat the other claimants to the punch. Fair or not, it is the law in Georgia that an insurance company can chose which claimant to pay without regard for "fairness" to the other claimants. The other half of the case is focused on a Dramshop case against the Duluth bar that over served the drunk drivers when it was obvious they would soon be driving at 3:00 in the morning.Examples of Wrongful Death Cases our Firm Has Handled or is Handling.
Motorcycle rider killed when tractor trailer turned left from the right lane across his path. Trucking company refused to offer anything as evidence showed motorcycle was speeding. Going to trial in 2013.
Trash truck backs into lumber stack, knocking it over and crushing the client to death. Case was complicated by immigration status of the victim and a strong apportionment of liability argument on the victim's employer. Case settled in litigation for well in excess of $1,000,000.
High impact collision with tractor trailer driving below the minimum speed limit kills passenger in a van. Going to trial in Federal Court in 2013 due to complex collision reconstruction issues.
Gentlemen with undiagnosed plasma cancer is in car wreck and sustains compression fracture and spiral arm fracture. Is hospitalized after wreck and never checks out of hospital. He dies 30 days later in the hospital. Because of his fragile state, the car accident injuries were the precipitating cause of the death. $500,000 offered but on track for trial in 2014.
Minor collision on the interstate leads to driver getting out of his car where he is struck by another driver and killed. Policy limits from all involved vehicles were paid out.
5 year old girl killed when struck by 82 year old senile driver as she gets off the school bus. The firm's expertise in analyzing UM coverages resulted in a doubling of all available insurance to maximize settlement in a case with no assets.
5 separate Pedestrian fatality cases where police officers made no investigation of the car's speed and wrote up the pedestrian for not being in the crosswalk.
Mother killed by careless driver in North Georgia. Insurance company wanted to dispute the economic value of her life because she did not draw a paycheck. The case eventually settled for the $1,000,000 policy limits.
Swift Action Means the difference between coming to peace with a loss and a profound sense of unfairness.
DO NOT MAKE A SNAP DECISION ON WHICH LAWYER TO HIRE.
You should interview at least three lawyers in person before you make a decision. Ask the lawyer bluntly whether they have actually filed and litigated wrongful death cases and what the results were. Ask about their current cases and in what phase they are. Ask to speak to their clients. These cases can lead to significant jury awards and unfortunately, some lawyers will be less than honest in an attempt to get your business.
Feel free to call Mr. Simon at 404-259-7635 and ask questions about the merits of the case. The Firm's attorneys make the painful process of dealing with a death in the family less confusing and he can explain how best to protect the family's rights.
Recent Wrongful Death Case Law DecisionsAlthough motor vehicle accidents typically involve more than one vehicle, a somewhat unexpected object can occasionally be at issue. In a recent decision, Williams v. Pauley, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed a peculiar car accident involving a stray horse and needed to determine whether a responding police officer could be held liable for the death of a motorist who collided with the horse.
Both parents have a right to share in the recovery for the wrongful death of an unmarried child with no children. OCGA § 19-7-1(c)(2). Under OCGA § 19-7-1(c)(2), one parent can hire a lawyer for both parents and the parents are to share equally in the proceeds. Pursuant to OCGA § 19-7-1(c)(2)(C), one parent may move to apportion the award, and the judge ruling on the motion considers each parent's relationship with the deceased child. OCGA § 19-7-1(c)(6). Rhone v. Bolden, 270 Ga.App. 712 (Ga. App., 2004)