Chapter 8: Determining the Value of a Wrongful Death Case

Among the most important items in a wrongful death case is the issue of determining a reasonable estimation of what the case may be worth.

The decision to file a claim involves considering the following:

  1. An evaluation of how much one can expect to recover;
  2. How much it will cost in terms of time, money, and emotion to pursue the case through litigation and trial;
  3. An estimate of one’s probability of success (i.e. determining how difficult it will be to convince a claims adjuster or a jury).

If someone is responsible for destroying your car, the car can be replaced. This is not the case when a human life is lost. There simply is no replacement for losing a child, parent, grandparent, husband or wife.

Keep in mind that the value of a wrongful death claim is not the same as placing a tangible value on the person who died. It is important to distinguish the difference between the value of a claim and the value of a person. The value of a person is priceless. The value of a claim, however, can be legally defined and determined.

Wrongful Death in Ohio Scenarios

Let’s examine three different scenarios that demonstrate how the value of a wrongful death case varies depending on the circumstances and details of each as outlined below.

Scenario 1:

Suzie is walking with her friends to elementary school and crosses a street in the crosswalk. When she is in the middle of the crosswalk, a truck driver who is driving the truck of a nationally recognized delivery company runs a red light and hits Suzie. She dies a short time later while being transported via helicopter to the hospital. The driver had been working two consecutive shifts for the past five days to catch up on deliveries.

In this scenario, the truck driver is at fault and his employer is also going to be held responsible for the driver’s actions. The employer is a large corporation and has nearly limitless resources to pay damages in this case. Juries are usually prejudiced against people who run red lights and against large corporations who place demands on their employees that create unsafe situations for the public. One might easily assume that the jury will probably want to punish the delivery company and the driver. This wrongful death case could be very substantial.

Scenario 2:

Suzie is walking with her friends to elementary school and crosses a street in the crosswalk. When she is in the middle of the crosswalk an elderly woman driving to a morning church service runs a red light and hits Suzie. Suzie dies later while being transported to the hospital. The elderly woman has very little money and depends on her monthly Social Security checks for income. Social Security benefits cannot be taken to satisfy a judgment. She has an auto insurance policy with minimum coverage.

In this scenario, the elderly woman is also at fault, but the case is entirely different than in the first Scenario. If this case goes to trial, a jury’s verdict may be affected by their sympathy toward the elderly woman.

Scenario 3:

Suzie is playing basketball with her elementary school friends in the front driveway of her home. The basketball rolls into the middle of the street and Suzie runs between the middle of two cars parked on the street to get it. She darts out in front of a mother of three young children driving a minivan on her way home from the grocery store. The mother was traveling below the posted speed limit, but she did not see Suzie run into the street and hits her. Suzie dies a short time later while being transported to the hospital.

In this scenario, Suzie is probably at fault or at least shares a significant portion of the fault. The mother of three young children is a sympathetic defendant if the case was brought to trial. A jury may have more compassion and understanding toward the mother and determine she could not have seen Suzie to avoid the accident. Therefore, this case may have little or no value.

Scenario Summary

In each of these examples we have the same young girl who dies. Her parents suffer the same tragic loss regardless of the facts in each example. Yet the value of the wrongful death case in Scenario 1 is likely very high, in Scenario 2 the value is likely worth only the amount of the elderly woman’s auto insurance policy and the value of the wrongful death case in Scenario 3 might very well have little or no value.

These scenarios are mere examples with limited details. In an actual wrongful death case there are numerous facts and issues that impact the value of a claim.

An Ohio wrongful death attorney will thoroughly evaluate how the facts and legal issues impact the value of a case and then discuss this evaluation with the client. In most cases, the attorney will need to conduct a thorough investigation and hire experts as well as take depositions before forming an accurate and reliable opinion regarding case value.

Determining Factors for the Value of a Claim

An examination of the primary factors that determine the value of a claim involve:

1. The value of a case under the laws of Ohio.

This depends on the number of claimants involved as well as the damages that are recoverable.

The death of a single, childless 20-year-old man who is a high school dropout and unemployed may be worth little in monetary terms compared, say, to the wrongful death of a 50-year-old physician who is a husband and also a father of four children. Doctors typically earn a substantial amount of income and the claim may be significant.

2. The jury’s perception of you.

Whether or not a jury will have sympathy for a claimant is not as influential a factor as whether a jury will like you. What prejudices will the jury have for or against you? Do jurors know someone who has suffered a loss such as yours? The unwritten rule in personal injury law is that all things being equal, juries tend to give money to people they both like and respect. If the deceased’s surviving family members come across as likeable, trustworthy, respectable, and genuinely sympathetic, then the jury is likely to award a higher verdict than if family members appear dishonest, unlikeable, or unsympathetic. If the jury perceives the survivors are using the lawsuit to try and “get rich,” the returned verdict may be disappointing. But if the jury believes the survivors have suffered and endured much grief and loss as a result of their loved one’s death, the verdict is apt to be a satisfactory one given the other facts and legal issues involved.

3. The jury’s perception of the deceased.

Whether the deceased was a “good person” or if you enjoyed a close relationship with the deceased are factors that weigh on a jury’s perspective in awarding a claim. It is human nature to feel it is easier to give more money for the death of a nice person than it is for someone who is perceived as not being a good person societally.

4. The amount of funds available to pay your claims.

In most situations when the defendant (the wrongdoer, the person, or company you’re making a claim against) is either a person or a small company, the realistic maximum amount of money that can be collected is directly related to the amount of the available insurance held to cover your claims.

5. The venue of your case.

A jury in a sparsely populated rural county tends to judge the value of a case differently than would a jury in a heavily populated urban area. Some trial courts move cases along quickly while others take many years to get a case to the trial stage.

6. The judge and jury.

The judge has a considerable amount of discretion concerning what evidence will be let in or kept out, at trial. You may also draw a conservative jury as opposed to a more liberal one and each might value the case differently.

7. The experience and skills of your lawyer.

Some lawyers have handled many different types of wrongful death cases, so they will likely be more versed in the law that covers these types of claims. The skill of your lawyer will have a great impact on the eventual value of a claim.

Back to chapter 7

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