In most Georgia cases, the people or entities who caused the death are responsible for paying the “damages”—i.e., the total money that the family is entitled to collect through the wrongful death and estate claims.
Georgia courts follow (in most contexts) an apportionment rule that was passed into law by the General Assembly in 2005. This apportionment rule is more complicated than it first appears, but basically, it means that where multiple people or entities are at fault for causing a wrongful death, each person or entity must pay for his or her percentage of “fault.” In some contexts, such as crashworthiness cases (also known as automotive product liability cases), the apportionment rule may not apply because of the crashworthiness doctrine established by Polston v. Boomershine Pontiac-GMC Truck, Inc., 262 Ga. 616 (1992). But most of the time, if there are multiple defendants, the apportionment rule will govern the allocation of damages.
To illustrate apportionment in a Georgia wrongful death case, imagine a car accident case in which Car A was parked illegally on the road, Car B had to stop behind Car A to avoid hitting it, and then Car C was driving too fast and rear-ended Car B, killing its driver. In this case, the drivers of Car A (who parked illegally) and Car C (who was driving too fast) are both somewhat responsible for the wrongful death of the driver of Car B. If the jury determined that the driver of Car A was 40% at fault, and the driver of Car C was 60% at fault, then the driver of Car A would be responsible for 40% of the damages, and the driver of Car C would be responsible for 60% of the damages.
Many wrongful death cases involve insurance. In the context of a shooting or other death for which a business is responsible, the business may have a “commercial general liability” (“CGL”) insurance policy and could also have an “excess” policy. In the context of a wrongful death shooting, a property owner (such as the owner of an apartment complex, hotel, or restaurant) may be responsible for failing to provide enough security, which would bring the property owner’s insurance into play. If an employee of a business or company was working in the course and scope of his or her employment when he or she caused the wrongful death of another person, that business or company is usually financially responsible for the death under Georgia’s principles of “vicarious liability” or “respondeat superior.” That usually triggers the liability insurance of the business or company.
In the context of a car accident, motorcycle accident, truck accident, bicycle accident, or scooter accident, the at-fault driver probably has a liability insurance policy that will pay first. If the at-fault driver had an umbrella insurance policy in addition to auto liability insurance, that may also be available. If the at-fault driver was working in the course and scope of his or her employer at the time of the collision, then the employer may be responsible under the Georgia “vicarious liability” or “respondeat superior” principles discussed above. Like other businesses, the employer may have a CGL insurance police or an excess insurance policy that is triggered. After that, the auto liability polies of resident relatives may provide coverage, depending on the language of the insurance policies.
After the liability insurance policies have been used up or “exhausted,” policies of uninsured / underinsured motorist (“UM”) coverage may provide additional coverage. In Georgia, an injured person can normally use his or her own UM insurance, the UM insurance of resident relatives, and sometimes the UM insurance of businesses related to the person or accident. Our firm has often found that we’re able to find insurance policies that our clients didn’t even know they had.
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.