HOW ARE DAMAGES IN A WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM PROVEN?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Wentling v. Medical Anesthesia Services, P.A., 237 Kan. 503, 701 P.2d 939 (1985).
This case addresses the following issue:
How are damages in a wrongful death claim proven?
In this case, the Defendant challenged the adequacy of evidence present to support an award of damages in a wrongful death claim. Id. at 509. Particularly, the evidence corresponding to “loss of services, care and guidance” was challenged as insufficient to support the sizable award. Id. The court found that Plaintiff was not required to present a specific dollar amount for such damages, but instead only needed to present evidence “showing the nature and extent of these losses.” Id. at 514. Using that evidence, the jury was “capable of converting the losses into monetary equivalents on the basis of their own experience.” Id.
This case arises from the death of Plaintiff’s wife. Id. at 504. The wife was about to give birth to the couple’s second child, when it was determined she needed to be placed on an anesthetic. Id. Defendant’s employee improperly administered the drug, which had an extremely adverse effect on the wife. Id. Ultimately, the child was born without any injury, but the wife fell into a coma and died shortly thereafter. Id. During her life, the wife had cared for the couple’s first child, who suffered from Down Syndrome and required near constant supervision and care. Id.
At trial, Plaintiff testified about the losses he suffered as a result of his wife’s death. Id. at 514. An economic expert also testified regarding the loss of income and childcare expenses Plaintiff would incur as a result of the tragic death. Id. at 506. The economic expert estimated these losses totaled roughly $600,000. Id. The jury ultimately awarded over $750,000. Id. Defendant challenged this amount, arguing that Plaintiff had only established damages of $600,000. Id.
The court began by noting that loss of services, guidance, and care are pecuniary losses, rather than non-pecuniary losses. Id. at 508. As far as what evidence is necessary to prove these losses, the court looked to past decisions of Kansas courts. Id. at 509-10. It had been previously held that some evidence of the nature and extent of such losses must be present to support any award. Id. at 509. However, there was no need to present an exact dollar amount corresponding to these losses. Id. Instead, “the jury, taking into consideration the knowledge and experience common to all men, could compute the damage” based on such evidence. Id. at 510. Thus, no mathematical certainty is required. Id.
Turning to the evidence in this case, the court found plenty to support the jury’s verdict. Id. at 512. Plaintiff had testified about his marriage, his wife’s assistance in caring for their child, and other types of support. Id. These types of services are universally recognized as having value. Id. at 514. Once such evidence was present, it was “the province of the jury to determine the monetary value of such loss.” Id. This is precisely what happened in this matter, and the court found no error in the verdict. Id.