HOW MUCH PROOF IS NECESSARY TO SUPPORT AN AWARD OF PECUNIARY (MONETARY) DAMAGES IN A WRONGFUL DEATH CASE?
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.
Huffman v. Thomas, 994 P.2d 1072 (Kan. Ct. App. 1999).
This case addresses the following issue:
How much proof is necessary to support an award of pecuniary (monetary) damages in a wrongful death case?
This case explored the issue of how much proof was necessary to support an award of pecuniary damages in a wrongful death case. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that plaintiffs in wrongful death actions were not required to prove their losses with mathematical certainty. Id. at 1077. As a matter of fact, the plaintiff’s burden of proof could be satisfied simply by showing the nature and extent of the loss asserted. Id.
The deceased, a 22-year-old man working at a car shop, was pinned to the floor after a truck fell off a lift. Id. at 1074. Thereafter, the deceased was transported to a hospital where he was seen by an ER doctor. Id. After the ER doctor noticed some blood in the deceased’s chest, he contacted the defendant, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Id. After running a few tests on the deceased, the defendant noticed that there were two tears in the deceased’s thoracic aorta and surgery was needed. Id. However, the defendant was informed that it would be 30 to 45 minutes before the operating room and staff could be ready to do the surgery, so he sent the deceased to an intensive care unit. Id. Shortly after, the deceased died at the intensive care unit. Id. at 1075. As a result, the deceased’s parents (plaintiffs) filed a wrongful death action against the defendant. Id. In response to the plaintiffs’ action, the defendant argued that the plaintiffs did not present sufficient proof to allow the jury to award pecuniary (monetary) damages. Id. Nevertheless, the jury awarded the plaintiffs nonpecuniary damages of $150,000 and pecuniary damages of $907,732.52. Id. The defendant appealed the jury’s verdict. Id.
The defendant argued that the plaintiffs failed to establish the nature and extent of the pecuniary damages they sustained as a result of their son’s death. Id. at 1077. In order to address this argument, the court first described pecuniary damages. Id. According to the court, pecuniary loss or damages in a wrongful death case should be equal to those monetary benefits or compensation that reasonably could have been expected to have resulted from the continued life of the deceased. Id. Further, the court stated that pecuniary damages allowed a parent to recover benefits which the parents may reasonably be expected to receive from the deceased as an adult. Id. Additionally, the court found that Kansas courts had long recognized that parents may recover pecuniary damages for the death of their majority age children. Id.
The court determined that the core issue in this case involved the amount of proof necessary to support an award of pecuniary damages. Id. With this in mind, the court concluded that plaintiffs in wrongful death actions were not required to prove their losses with mathematical certainty. Id. In fact, the burden of proof could be satisfied simply by showing the nature and extent of the loss asserted. Id. This could include evidence that the decedent regularly cooked, cleaned, or maintained the home. Id.
In this case, the deceased son lived at home with his parents (plaintiffs) who were both disabled. Id. The son would take care of all the chores around the home and he contributed money to all of the household expenses. Id. Additionally, the family spent a lot of time together. Id. at 1078. Therefore, the court concluded that the above examples satisfied the amount of proof necessary to support an award of pecuniary damages. Id.