The Value of a Wrongful Death Settlement Case
Every year, people die due to the negligence of others. These situations are unfortunate because they are unnecessary. When this happens, family members of the deceased may file wrongful death claims to get compensation for the loss of their loved ones.
Few wrongful death lawsuit end at trial, though. Typically, lawyers negotiate settlements during pre-trial motions. These settlements can range in value from a few thousand dollars to well over $1 million.
The Basics of a Wrongful Death Case
Wrongful death cases are similar to personal injury cases. In a personal injury case, one person’s negligence causes injury to another. The person who was injured files a claim against the negligent party. That claim is usually resolved with either an insurance settlement or a court verdict.
In a wrongful death case, the injured party is dead. Thus, they can’t file a lawsuit. Instead, a representative of their estate or a relative sues in their place. The potential awards for this claim are similar to the potential awards in a personal injury claim.
Many people do not understand the legal concept of negligence. Just because a person made a mistake, that does not mean they were negligent. Negligence implies something deeper.
Proving negligence involves four factors. These factors are:
- A duty of care: The negligent person must have a duty to protect the safety of the injured person. In some cases, this duty is explicit. For example, a caregiver at a nursing home must protect their patients as part of their job duties. This duty can also be implicit. Everyone has a duty to avoid accidents when driving.
- They violated that duty: The negligent person broke their duty due to carelessness, recklessness, or an intentional act. Typically, negligence results from carelessness.
- The violation resulted in the death of the victim: Making a mistake doesn’t constitute negligence by itself. A person is only considered to be negligent if their action caused someone’s death. Failing to do something can also be a negligent action if someone dies because of that failure.
- The death resulted in meaningful damages: While, technically, you could file a wrongful death lawsuit for $1, that is not a meaningful loss. There is no definition of “meaningful.” But usually, an act isn’t negligent unless it causes at least a few thousand dollars in damages.
A claimant can only file a wrongful death claim if they have evidence that someone was negligent.
In a personal injury case, the injured person would file a lawsuit. However, if that person is dead, others need to file in their place.
Each state has different restrictions on who is allowed to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In some states, only a representative for the estate may file a lawsuit. That lawsuit represents everyone eligible to receive money.
In other states, family members can file a lawsuit. Typically, only the deceased’s children, spouse, and parents may file a claim. However, some states allow other relatives to file a lawsuit if they have a close relationship with the victim.
While these rules apply to court cases, they effectively apply to insurance settlements as well. Insurance companies will typically only agree to settlements with people who could potentially sue.
How Wrongful Death Settlements Are Calculated
Lawyers negotiate with insurance companies to determine the value of wrongful death settlements. These negotiations typically occur after both sides investigate the claim. Negotiators commonly use several factors to calculate these values.
People rarely die immediately. Often, the deceased receives medical care before dying. That medical care can be costly. Typically, the cost of that care will be included in the value of a settlement.
Funeral and Burial Expenses
Funerals and burials are relatively expensive. The cheapest funeral costs a few thousand dollars. Burying someone in a nice graveyard after a large funeral will probably cost over $10,000.
Any income the deceased was expected to earn income is permanently lost. Anyone who relied on that income can get compensation for those lost wages. Typically, this means that spouses or children of the deceased are eligible for compensation for lost wages.
Additionally, wages usually increase over time. Someone working their first job typically makes less money than someone who has 30 years of experience. Wrongful death settlements take this fact into account. Lawyers attempt to calculate approximately how much the deceased would have earned if they had survived to a natural end.
The people closest to the deceased suffer the most after their death. Civil law allows loved ones to get compensation for that suffering. There is no perfect way to determine this value, though. Typically, the value of mental anguish is calculated as a multiple of economic damages. However, other approaches will sometimes be used.
Loss of Consortium
People don’t just feel sad after losing a loved one. They also suffer because they will never again spend time with that person. This loss is particularly meaningful to spouses who have lost a romantic partner.
Details that Affect These Factors
Before reaching a wrongful death settlement, both sides need to agree on the values of these factors. This means the negotiators need to look at the details of each factor. For example, the expected wages of a man near retirement are less than the expected wages of a man just out of college.
Age most strongly affects potential income. The younger someone is, the longer they are likely to live. Typically, negotiators look at the average age of death for people with their characteristics (gender, race, location, etc.). That is the base value for determining how long they would likely have lived.
The deceased’s health at the time of their death factors into calculations as well. A 60-year-old woman who exercises every day is likely to live longer than one who is bedbound. Typically, lawyers use medical records to determine the health of the deceased.
Loss of consortium and mental anguish are challenging to determine. Typically, investigators will look for evidence of how strong a relationship a claimant had with the deceased. For example, if a child had only spoken to a parent a few times in the past few years, that relationship would be considered weak.
Strong relationships usually involve regular communication and face-to-face meetings (if financially viable).
The easiest way to calculate future potential income is to look at current income. If the deceased earned $100,000 a year when they died, they were likely to earn at least that amount each year if they had lived.
Examples of Wrongful Death Settlements
Claimants usually receive at least tens of thousands of dollars from wrongful death settlements. This is because of the high costs of funerals, burials, and medical care. However, many claims are worth quite a bit more. The following are examples of some of the highest settlements ever.
Galdamez, et al. v. U-Haul Co. of Pennsylvania, et al. ($160 Million)
In 2014, Olga Galdamez brought her food truck to a U-Haul to refill the propane tanks. The employees at the U-Haul overfilled the tanks. They also did not notice that safety valves were missing.
These mistakes created an unsafe situation that resulted in an explosion. The explosion killed Galdamez and her daughter and seriously injured two others.
Both injured victims sued, and so did the estate of the deceased. While U-Haul never acknowledged guilt, it settled for almost $160 million.
Estate of Manzera, et al. v. Frugoli, et al. ($20 Million)
In 2017, Andrew Cazares and Fausto Manzera were killed in a car accident. Their vehicle became disabled, and they were stuck on the side of the road waiting for assistance. Joseph Frugoli struck their vehicle, killing them both.
At the time of the accident, Joseph Frugoli was intoxicated. He was also an off-duty Chicago police officer. The estate of Manzera sued Frugoli and his employer. Eventually, the estate received a $20 million settlement.
Mendoza v. Los Angeles County ($14.35 Million)
On August 1, 2014, police chased a criminal to the property of Frank Mendoza, Sr. The criminal broke into his home and attempted to hide from pursuit.
The Mendoza family cooperated fully with the police, allowing them entry into their home. Unfortunately, one police officer made a mistake. As police confronted the criminal, Frank Mendoza, Sr. tried to flee the area. That officer shot Frank in the leg and the head.
While a criminal investigation determined the police officer didn’t perform a criminal act, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t negligent. Lawyers negotiated a $14.35 million settlement with Los Angeles Police.
Estate of Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corp, Inc., et al. ($14 Million)
This case didn’t only result in a massive settlement. It also changed state law.
In 2012, David Bogenberger pledged to the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at Northern Illinois University. During a pledge event, the other members hazed him. They forced him to drink too much alcohol, and he died of intoxication.
The Supreme Court of Illinois determined that members of the local chapter and non-members who played a role in the death could be sued. This moved the bar for negligence in alcohol-related hazing incidents. Due to this decision, Pi Kappa Alpha eventually settled for $14 million.
Gruppioni, et al. v. City of Los Angeles ($12 Million)
In 2013, Alice Gruppioni traveled to Venice Beach for her honeymoon. While Alice was on the boardwalk, Nathan Louis Campbell struck her with his car. Alice died in that car accident.
Campbell never should have been on the boardwalk. Cars are not permitted to drive on it, and there are blockades at the entrance to prevent them. However, the blockades were not properly placed. Due to this, Campbell drove around the blockades and got onto the boardwalk.
This was a foreseeable problem. Business owners complained about the blockades for years before the accident. Eventually, the Los Angeles City Council acknowledged its responsibility and settled for $12 million.
How Much is The Average Wrongful Death Settlement?
While massive settlements are exciting to read about, few settlements are worth more than $1 million. In most cases, the average wrongful death settlements are between $500,000 and $1 million.
Why Settlements Aren’t Usually Over $1 Million: Damages?
The money you receive from a trial verdict is called damages. There are multiple types of damages. The total value of a verdict is based on how these damages interact.
The most important type of damages in most cases is economic damages. These represent actual losses that the claimant suffered. Examples of non-economic damages include medical costs, funeral costs, and lost wages.
Because these represent actual costs, the average person won’t receive high economic damages. For example, the average U.S. worker earns $54,000 per year and retires at approximately 60 years old. Thus, a 50-year-old with an average income only expects to earn a little over $500,000 more before they retire.
A younger individual would earn more, and so would someone who earned more than the average income. But when you average age and income, few people are likely to earn more than $1 million during the remainder of their lives.
Furthermore, other economic damages usually don’t meaningfully compare to income. Funeral costs may get as high as $20,000, but that isn’t even equal to an average year of income. Even medical costs rarely break $100,000.
Non-economic damages are the damages that don’t reflect an actual loss. Loss of consortium and mental anguish are examples of non-economic damages. Because there is no way to produce a receipt for these types of damages, courts have found other ways to assign a value.
Unfortunately, the most common way courts assign a value is by looking at economic damages. Typically, the award for mental anguish is around three times the value of economic damages. Thus, even if you are getting a few hundred thousand dollars for economic damages, any mental anguish damages will still be less than $1 million.
Claimants can also potentially receive punitive damages. These damages occur when the court punishes the defendant for their behavior. Because this is punishment, the value of these damages can fluctuate wildly. Usually, when an award is over $1 million, it means the defendant’s actions were particularly egregious.
Why Settlements Aren’t Usually Over $1 Million: State Laws
Imagine your spouse died in a car accident, and the other driver was negligent. How much money will you receive?
The answer to that question depends on where the accident happened. In California, you will receive a different amount of money than you would in Texas. This is due to state laws.
Many states impose damage caps on wrongful death verdicts. And those caps change from state to state.
Usually, economic damages aren’t limited. But other types of damages are often capped. In one state, the limit might be $250,000 in non-economic damages. But in the next state, that cap might be $1 million.
Some states also change caps based on how the person died. For example, some states cap wrongful death cases only when medical malpractice was the cause of the death.
Negligence rules also change from state to state. These rules dictate how much money the claimant can get from a court verdict, depending on how responsible the defendant is for the death.
In some states, as long as the defendant is mostly responsible, the claimant receives the full award. However, in other states, the award will be prorated by an amount equal to how responsible the defendant is for the death.
Finally, in other states, if the deceased was even slightly responsible for their death, the claimant wouldn’t receive any money.
This difference in negligence rules means that a case isn’t even worth pursuing in some states.
Why Settlements Aren’t Usually Over $1 Million: Other Factors
Some factors that affect settlements don’t easily fit into a category. But these factors still matter a lot.
Lack of Dependents
If you work, your minor children and your spouse probably depend on your income for survival. But your children survive off their incomes once they are older. And if you don’t have a spouse, you may not have any dependents.
This makes a big difference in settlements. While your children expect to inherit your estate, you are likely to spend most of the money you earn between now and the natural end of your life. Thus, if you die suddenly, your adult children could only expect a fraction of your potential income.
This is another type of economic damages. In most families, one person is more responsible for certain activities than another. For example, only one adult might know how to drive, or one adult might clean the gutters every year.
When someone dies unexpectedly, the remaining adult might need to hire someone to do work the deceased would have done. This is an expense that can be reimbursed. However, few people keep any type of records that prove that the deceased performed these activities. Thus, the claimant may have difficulty getting compensation.
Wealthy People Are Less Likely to Die
For a variety of socio-economic reasons, wealthy people are less likely to suffer wrongful deaths. They have access to better health care and are less likely to be in situations where wrongful death is a risk.
Because people with lower incomes usually get less money, this affects the average value of wrongful death settlements.
Settlements vs. Trial Verdicts
Nearly all of the previous factors refer to trial verdicts. But settlements don’t come from trials. They are negotiated outside of trials.
While this is true, trial awards influence verdicts. The insurance companies understand the various rules regarding damages, negligence, and damage caps. An insurance company will never offer a $2 million settlement if it knows the claimant couldn’t get that much in court.
Typically, a settlement value is less than the maximum the claimant can win in court but more than the minimum they would likely get. As long as the insurance company is saving money on legal costs, it is easier for everyone to settle.
An Unfortunate Disparity in Wrongful Death Settlements
As previously noted, economic damages usually play the most significant part in the value of settlements. Unfortunately, this means that wealthy individuals usually get larger settlements than those with less money.
The main culprit of this is lost wages. If someone who earns $200,000 a year dies, their estate will get more money than the estate of a victim who earns $40,000 per year. This is true even if all other circumstances of the death are identical.
And this disparity affects other aspects of economic damages as well. Someone who is wealthy has likely arranged for a more expensive funeral and burial than someone who isn’t. When a rich person dies, their family might get more money just because they are being buried in a mausoleum.
Non-Economic Damages Have the Same Disparity
These differences also extend to non-economic damages. Since these damages are often calculated based on economic damages, the disparity continues. If two people love their spouse equally, this system awards higher damages to the richer one for mental anguish.
Damage caps can mitigate this difference, though they also create other problems. Typically, the only situation where a wealthier claimant doesn’t have an advantage is when punitive damages are applied.
The Impact of a Lawyer on Wrongful Death Settlements
Another factor that impacts the average value of wrongful death settlements is lawyers. Typically, people who hire lawyers get significantly higher compensation.
If someone doesn’t have a lawyer, they have to rely on the insurance company to give them a fair settlement. Unfortunately, insurers rarely pay claimants what they should.
Insurance Companies Are Corporations
Insurance companies aim to make money. They earn that money by charging customers for their services. Every time they pay money for a claim, they lose some of that money. Thus, every insurance company tries to pay as little money for claims as possible.
This is relatively easy to accomplish. Insurance companies control the claims process. Thus, they can deny a claim with almost no oversight. While they will rarely outright deny a legitimate claim, they will often undervalue it.
This is also easy to do since the insurance company controls the investigation of the claim. It can claim that the deceased was partially or mostly responsible for their death or can undervalue their potential income. And claimants have difficulty challenging these claims.
While every insurance company has an appeals process, they also control that process. Claimants rarely get better results using the appeals process.
Lawyers vs. Insurance Companies
Lawyers change everything about the claims process. First, lawyers independently investigate the claim. This means that a lawyer collects and analyzes evidence the same way insurance companies do. However, because the lawyer is on the side of the claimant, they come to different conclusions.
A lawyer also presents all supporting evidence to the insurance company. This prevents the insurance company from ignoring evidence that supports the claimant.
Once an attorney gets involved, most insurance companies negotiate in good faith. It is better to pay a fair settlement than get pulled into a costly court trial.
The claimant also wins. Typically, even once lawyer fees are paid, claimants get a lot more money from a settlement than they would without a lawyer.
When a Case Goes to Trial
Lawyers are even more important if the case goes to trial. While individuals without law licenses are allowed to represent themselves, it is never a good idea. The legal system is confusing for most people. Few can even successfully file a lawsuit without making mistakes.
And even if a person successfully files their lawsuit, they will likely get overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and many deadlines in a civil lawsuit. When even one deadline is missed, the judge often dismisses the case and rules in favor of the defendant.
Legal procedures don’t overwhelm experienced lawyers. They usually have a well-trained staff that keeps track of deadlines and properly fills out all paperwork. This is particularly important because few cases ever go to verdict.
Typically, insurance companies will settle before the verdict is announced. However, pursuing the legal process can potentially save them a lot of money. If the claimant makes a mistake or drops out of the case, the insurance company saves money despite lawyer fees.
Thus, it is important to have an attorney who is highly skilled at dealing with trials, even if they never step into a courtroom. Their ability to keep up with opposing counsel motions and court requests keeps the case alive. And the closer a case gets to verdict, typically, the more the insurance company will pay in a settlement.
Contact a Wrongful Death Lawyer to Learn More
Everyone suffers after the untimely death of a loved one. If your loved one died due to negligence, contact the Joel Bieber Firm as soon as possible to learn more about your legal options.