Wrongful Death Cases in Georgia: Frequently Asked Questions

Georgia’s wrongful death law has been called the “noblest statute in Georgia.” It values life highly. In Georgia, where a person or entity takes somebody’s life, the party at fault must pay “the full value of the life.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(a). In one wrongful death case we handled, the jury returned a verdict of $150,000,000.

If you are reading this page because you have lost a loved one or a close friend, we offer our condolences. We hope this page will help answer questions.

Can a Georgia wrongful death lawyer bring a case if my spouse or relative died by suicide?

It depends on the circumstances. Of course if the suicide was not anyone’s fault, then there is nobody who should be sued and it would not be appropriate to file a case. However, there are some situations in which a business or person may be responsible for a suicide.

One such situation involves mental health treatment. Sometimes, suicides happen and there is no way anyone could have prevented them. Other times, however, a business or person may bear responsibility. For instance, mental health treatment professionals, like psychiatric hospitals or individual psychiatrists, have a responsibility to provide good, reasonable treatment to the patients and families who pay them for that treatment. If they don’t—that is, if the hospital or psychiatrist acts negligently or recklessly, and that negligence or recklessness causes the suicide—then the hospital or psychiatrist may be responsible in a wrongful death case.

At Butler Kahn, we have seen examples of psychiatric treatment hospitals that deliberately failed to hire enough nurses and staff to care for their patients, leading to inadequate care and multiple suicides. These are tragic cases. The driving cause of some such suicides is the unwillingness of the owner of the hospital to pay the salaries of the number of nurses required by the number of patients that the hospital takes in.

Can a Georgia wrongful death lawyer bring a case after a motorcycle, bicycle, scooter, or pedestrian accident?

Yes. Our firm has handled many cases involving alternative types of transportation like motorcycle accidentsbicycle accidentsscooter accidents, or pedestrian accidents.

Handling a wrongful death case that involves alternative transportation, like a motorcycle, bicycle, scooter, or pedestrian, involves looking into many of the same factors involved in car or truck accidents. That is, a good lawyer should look not only for insurance, but also at whether the at-fault driver was ‘on the clock’ for a company or business at the time of the collision. If appropriate, a good lawyer should also investigate roadway maintenance or product liability theories.

Handling cases about alternative transportation methods also involves finding all available insurance. Although many people don’t realize it, our auto insurance policies (both liability insurance and uninsured motorist insurance) can often be used to help victims of accidents that involve motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, or pedestrians.

Can a Georgia wrongful death lawyer bring a case after a car accident or trucking accident?

Yes. Our firm has handled such cases successfully in the past, including a $150 million verdict and a $2.95 million settlement.

The jury that heard our closing argument in the video clip below returned a verdict of $150,000,000.

Truck accidents and car accidents continue to claim the lives of thousands of Americans per year. For decades, the rate of fatalities per mile driven was going down, but then it began going up again.  Nobody is sure why, but the uptick in deaths on American roads could be related to smartphones, texting and driving, or other types of distracted driving.

When you speak to a lawyer about a wrongful death case arising from a car accident or truck accident, be sure your lawyer is ready to explore all possible paths to recovery. Almost any lawyer can settle a wrongful death car or truck accident case for the insurance limits of the at-fault driver, but that is almost never enough to compensate for the “full value of the life,” as Georgia’s Wrongful Death Act requires. Good lawyers look at other options as well. Was the vehicle safely designed, or should it have protected the decedent better? Was the roadway properly maintained?  Was the at-fault driver working in the course and scope of employment for a company or business that could be vicariously liable or liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior?

We explore those options for our clients.

Can a Georgia wrongful death lawyer bring a case after a shooting or other violent crime?

Yes. Our firm has handled such cases successfully in the past, including a recent settlement of $3 million.

Often, cases arising from shootings or violent crimes are brought as negligent security cases. That is because businesses like apartment complexes, hotels, restaurants, and clubs have a responsibility to their residents, guests, or customers to keep the business and the approaches (such as parking lots) reasonably safe. If the business fails to do that—i.e., it fails to keep its paying customers reasonably safe—and someone is killed as a result, then the business and the individual shooter or criminal can be liable in a wrongful death case.

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.

Are punitive damages available in connection with wrongful death claims in Georgia?

Punitive damages are not available in connection with the wrongful death claims following a person’s death, but they can be available in connection with the estate claims following a person’s death.

Georgia courts have consistently held that punitive damages are not available in connection with wrongful death claims because a wrongful death claim “is itself punitive.” Ford Motor Co. v. Stubblefield, 171 Ga. App. 331, 340 (1984). However, the jury may impose punitive damages in connection with the estate claims that are brought as a part of the same lawsuit. Donson Nursing Facilities v. Dixon, 176 Ga. App. 700, 701 (1985).

Of course, as in any other type of case, punitive damages are only available if “the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1(b). In other words, punitive damages are appropriate when a defendant knew about the risk, but did not care. However, punitive damages may be capped at $250,000 in non-product-liability cases unless the defendant knew that harm would result or was using alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.

As a reminder, wrongful death claims and estate claims are different. Wrongful death claims are brought to recover for the full value of the life of the decedent, including intangible and economic factors. Estate claims are brought to recover for pain and suffering, medical bills, and funeral expenses. (For more detail about this, see the question “What compensation is available in Georgia for a wrongful death case?” above.)

Who gets the money in a Georgia wrongful death case?

Georgia law establishes clear rules for where the money goes in a wrongful death case. The Official Code of Georgia says that any money received from a wrongful death case “shall be equally divided, share and share alike, among the surviving spouse and the children.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(d)(1). In other words, the surviving husband or wife and the decedent’s surviving children share equally in the recovery, with each receiving an identical share. If a child of the decedent is a minor, that child’s guardian will be responsible for handling his or her share. However, in no event—even if there were four children—would the surviving spouse receive less than one-third of the recovery. O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(d).

To use some examples:

  1. If the decedent died with a surviving husband or wife but no children, that surviving spouse would receive 100% of the money from the wrongful death case.
  2. If the decedent died with no surviving husband or wife, but one surviving child, that child would receive 100% of the money from the wrongful death case.
  3. If the decedent died with no surviving husband or wife, but two surviving children, one of which was under 18 years old (and therefore a minor), each surviving child would receive 50% of the money from the wrongful death case.  However, the guardian of the minor child would handle the minor child’s 50% of the money.
  4. If the decedent died with a surviving husband or wife and two surviving children, each person—the surviving spouse and each of the surviving children—would be entitled to one-third of the money from the wrongful death case.
  5. If the decedent died with a surviving husband or wife and four surviving children, the surviving spouse would be entitled to one-third of the money from the wrongful death case, and each child would be entitled to one-sixth of the money (which is one-fourth of the remaining two-thirds).

There are some exceptions to Georgia’s rules about how money from the wrongful death claim gets divided. If a decedent dies with no surviving husband, wife, or children, but two surviving parents, the parents usually share equally in any money recovered. However, if the parents are “divorced, separated, or living apart,” than a motion can be filed asking the judge to determine which parent will receive what share. O.C.G.A. § 17-9-1(c)(6). However, it is almost always smart to avoid filing such a motion, and instead divide the money 50/50 or handle the issue by agreement. The reason is that the defense can try to exploit the differences between the parents and use any accusations that are made against them both later in the case. Therefore, it is almost always in the interest of both parents to avoid this fight over who gets what.

Keep in mind that money from the estate claims can get divided differently than money from the wrongful death claims. That is because who receives money from the estate usually depends on the will, if the decedent had one, or on Georgia’s laws of intestacy (which are applied by probate courts) if the decedent died without a will. The difference between how wrongful death money is distributed, and how estate money is distributed, can create thorny issues about how to allocate settlement money between the two types of claims. The lawyers at Butler Kahn are familiar with these issues and have written professional articles about them.

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