Georgia law takes wrongful death cases very seriously. When a person is killed by the wrongful act of another, the person or entity that caused the death must compensate the deceased person’s family for “the full value of the life” of the person who died. O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(a). Importantly, the “full value of the life” is determined from the perspective of the person who died. In other words, the question is what “value” the deceased person placed upon his or her own life. Brock v. Wedincamp, 253 Ga. App. 275, 281-82 (2002).
The “full value of the life” breaks down into two parts under Georgia wrongful death law. The first, and most important part, is called the “intangible” value of a life. This includes the value of time that the deceased person (also known as the “decedent”) spent with family, with friends, or doing things that the decedent liked to do—such as playing sports, hiking, working on cars, sewing, or other hobbies. The intangible value of a life includes the milestones that most of us get the opportunity to experience—such as forming lifelong friendships, falling in love, graduating from high school, earning a first paycheck, asking or being asked for marriage, having children, being promoted, watching children grow up, having grandchildren, or enjoying retirement. If the person died before being able to experience these things, those lost experiences are part of the “full value” of life under Georgia’s wrongful death law.
The second part of the “full value” of a life is economic. This involves the money that the deceased person would have earned, without deductions for taxes or expenses, plus the economic value of services that the deceased person performed, such as mowing the lawn or washing dishes. Where appropriate, the law firm handling a wrongful death case can hire an expert economist to add up how much money the deceased would have made in the remainder of his or her life, and the value of services that the deceased would have performed, and present those figures to the judge and jury.
In addition to a wrongful death claim, when a person dies through the fault of another, the deceased’s family usually also brings an “estate” claim. The estate claim is related to the wrongful death claim, but the compensation that is available is different. Whereas the wrongful death claim is for the “full value of the life” of the deceased, the estate claim allows the deceased person’s heirs or beneficiaries to recover for the pain and suffering that the deceased experienced, for medical expenses, for funeral expenses, and for certain other items of damages.