How Wrongful Death Saves Countless Lives

How Wrongful Death Saves Countless Lives

One of the most serious and challenging types of legal case is the case of wrongful death. When someone’s carelessness, or even worse, intentional wrongdoing, takes the life of one of our fellow human beings, it is imperative that justice be done. Most people are probably unaware that throughout most of the legal system’s history, there was no such thing as suing for wrongful death.

Under what is called the “common law,” wrongful death was not a viable cause of action because the person who was dead could not sue. This lead to disturbing situations and incentives. For example, if someone ran you over (say with a horse and carriage) and seriously hurt you, they would face a substantial claim for your injuries, medical expenses, and so forth. But, if they backed up over you again and killed you, suddenly you would have no claim at all. Obviously, we didn’t want to be in a situation where it’s better financially for wrongdoers to kill us, than merely to hurt us.

So, wrongful death was invented and passed into what we call “statutory” law coming from the various state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress. These wrongful death statutes laid out the kinds of damages that could be awarded to the “estate,” or representative of a person who has been wrongfully killed. They also set forth which people would be entitled to collect those damages. In some cases, they set forth the maximum amounts that could be had as damages. 

In West Virginia, for example, the wrongful death statute for many years capped damages at $10,000 per person killed. While it might have sounded like a substantial sum, when the law was passed, the damage cap eventually lead to clearly unjust situations. For example, when the Pittston coal slurry impoundment breached its dam and killed 125 people at Buffalo Creek, the coal company was able to claim that its damages were limited to the value of property that was destroyed, and $10,000 per innocent victim. Situations like that led to the cap on damages being removed and the amount of damages to be awarded in any given case to be left in the hands of the jury that hears the evidence. 

In the modern world, with major companies not only operating in heavy industry like coal but also in the area of pharmaceuticals, nursing home administration and trucking, the wrongful death cause of action is a critical piece of protection for every American. The availability of damages for a wrongful death is what checks sometimes ruthless corporate thinking about whether it is better to fix a dangerous product or to allow it to go on the market. For example, a drug that a pharmaceutical company knows will cause a hundred wrongful deaths that the company estimates can be defended or settled for $100 million, might still be a very profitable drug for the company to release if they believe its sales will bring $200 million, $300 million or $400 million in profit to the company. Juries have power, by raising the value that we place on human life, to rein in that kind of thinking, and make sure the companies do the right thing and choose protecting the lives of their fellow citizens over expanding corporate profits. 

Each time a jury returns a verdict in a wrongful death case, they make a statement, not only to the defendant in that particular case, but to every other company and individual that might carelessly cause a loss of human life. The message is that the law is watching and that our juries care about the lives of their fellow citizens. By making sure that no wrongful death goes unredressed, our juries and our courts of law provide protection to all Americans. 

 

One of the most serious and challenging types of legal case is the case of wrongful death. When someone�s carelessness, or even worse, intentional wrongdoing, takes the life of one of our fellow human beings, it is imperative that justice be done. Most people are probably unaware that throughout most of the legal system�s history, there was no such thing as suing for wrongful death.