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Brain Injury Lawsuit Verdict Leads to Change in Wrongful Death Law

The Legal Intelligencer reported last week on a change in one state’s wrongful death law that was prompted by a brain injury lawsuit. The case, Rettger v. UPMC Shadyside, involves the death of a 24-year old man who passed away after he suffered a brain herniation caused by a delayed diagnosis of his brain infection. It goes without saying that when an infection strikes any part of the body-particularly the brain-it is essential to receive treatment as soon as possible. Any delay, as this case shows, can have life threatening consequences.

Following the young man’s death, his parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit. These legal actions are brought by family members of victims who are killed by the negligence of others. They are unique legal actions in that they seek recovery for losses to the survivors themselves, caused by the loss of their family member. This must be distinguished from legal actions that seek to provide relief for the harm caused to the actual victim. Usually these wrongful death claims are brought in conjunction with a survivorship action (which is brought in the name of the victim). Wrongful death actions are most often brought by the spouse or children of the victim. In this case, however, the man who died because of the medical malpractice was unmarried and had no children. Therefore, the wrongful death suit was brought by the man’s parents.

The article explains that when a wrongful death action is bought by parents, the award is usually less than when children or spouse brings the suit. The damage amount depends on the connection of the victim to the deceased, the support that the deceased provided to the plaintiff, and similar factors. In this case, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the parents in the amount of $2.5 million. Following the decision, the defense appealed the verdict, claiming that it was owed a remittitur (a judge’s decrease of an award amount) because the jury verdict was excessive. The defense claimed that the victim has no children or spouse, and therefore it was unreasonable for the jury to have awarded the victim’s parents that much money for their losses.

The trial judge rejected the defense’s remittitur motion. They noted that the “services” that the jury could have found needed compensated went beyond mere household chores or financial support that a wife or child would have expected. They noted, “the term (services) clearly extend to the profound emotional and psychological loss suffered upon the death of a parent to child where the evidence establishes the negligence of another as its cause.” The court logically noted that while $2.5 million is a substantial sum, it is no way fully compensated the parents for the loss of the child they raised into adulthood. Our Chicago injury lawyers understand that it is important for juries to maintain the ability to reach fair decisions on the value of a loss when caused by the misconduct of another. This appellate decision reaches the fair conclusion that arbitrary rules limiting the ability of juries to reach conclusions in these cases should not be handed down from the bench.

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