What is the “full value of life” in Georgia wrongful death law?
In Georgia wrongful death law, the measure of damages is the “full value of life,” which includes both economic and noneconomic value of the decedent’s life to him or her. Unlike some states, Georgia does not provide for recovery of losses suffered by those left behind, who are deprived of the companionship, advice, counsel, or consortium of the deceased. But unlike other states, in respecting the sanctity of all human life, Georgia does not impose any rigid formula or cap on the value of life.
The economic component of the full value of life include the present value of future earnings without any deduction for necessary or other personal expenses or taxes of the decedent had she lived. In determining the economic value of the life of the decedent, jurors may consider all the facts and circumstances of the case, including the decedent’s age, physical health and strength, the labor and work which he performed, income, value of any labor and work which performed, and every other fact and circumstance which would throw light upon the value of her life. That projection of economic value of life is reduced to present cash value such upon the basis of interest calculated at 5% per annum.
In projecting lifetime earnings, jurors may consider age at the time of death, the likelihood of retirement from work, and the possibility that the capacity to earn money may or may not remain undiminished to old age. Jurors may also consider feebleness of health, actual sickness, loss of employment, voluntarily abstaining from work, dullness in business, reduction in wages, the increasing infirmities of age with the corresponding diminution of earning capacity, and other causes may contribute in greater or less degree to decrease the gross earnings of a lifetime.
Sometimes when a decedent was retired, or close to retirement, survivors may be counseled not to bother with seeking the economic component of the value of life which can set a low “anchor” number in jurors’ thinking.
The intangible aspect of the value of life does not depend upon any formula, though lawyers may suggest formulas based upon life expectancy and any other factors. There is no fixed rule in arriving at the full value of the life of the deceased. Jurors are told to determine the subjective, intangible value of life based upon what the decedent’s life was worth to her, using their enlightened conscience, experience and knowledge of human affairs. They may consider virtually all facts and circumstances affecting the quality and subjective value of a person’s life. Factors considered may include the decedent’s relationships, living conditions and family circumstances, and anything that was important to the decedent, such as love of family, music, church, and leisure activities. I have used photos and videos of decedents’ activities, their own nature photograph, woodwork, artwork and writings. However, some evidence of a decedent’s.
The intangible aspects of life may be demonstrated through testimony of family members and friends regarding their relationship with the decedent as well as evidence relevant to the decedent’s general enjoyment of life. While the survivors’ loss of relationship with the decedent is not compensable in Georgia law, such relationships may be considered as the mirror image of the relationship that the decedent lost.
Regarding both the economic and intangible aspects of the value of life, jurors may refer to life expectancy tables. Two such tables are included in the Georgia evidence code, and may be submitted without any further proof. Those are the Commissioners 1958 Standard Ordinary Mortality Table and the Annuity Mortality Table for 1949, Ultimate. In addition, other life expectancy tables may be used with a proper evidentiary foundation, such as United States Life Tables published in National Vital Statistics Reports, and various life expectancy tables in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. More extensive information about actuarial and mortality tables can be obtained from the website of the Society of Actuaries at http://www.soa.org and at a general information website concerning actuarial science, http://www.actuary.com. In practice, after comparing the numbers there is often not enough difference between the 1949 mortality annuity table and the most current life expectancy table to justify using the newer ones which are broken down by race.
In addition to the wrongful death claim itself, the estate of a person who died may have a claim pain and suffering prior to the death, medical expenses and funeral expenses. Any claim for punitive damages must be based upon the estate’s claim, also known as a “survival action” because it survives the decedent’s death. Where the numbers in such a claim are relatively small, a decision must be made as to whether it is worth including that claim which could set a low “anchor” number in the minds of jurors.
Ken Shigley is an Atlanta trial attorney focused on serious personal injury and wrongful death cases. He is currently chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section. Previously he served as president of the State Bar of Georgia and chair of the board of trustees of theInstitute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy.