A recent article about a wrongful death trial in Pittsburgh, PA caught my attention. The trial resulted in a $2.5 Million plaintiff’s verdict on the wrongful death case, but the jury, ignoring the judge’s specific instructions, rendered a $0 award on the “Survivor Act” portion of the case. This result suggests a misunderstanding about survivor loss benefits that I would like to clarify in this post.
Pennsylvania, like most jurisdictions, divides Wrongful Death cases into two parts and, in Pennsylvania, those “parts” are contained in two separate statutes. A damage claim under the Wrongful Death Act is brought on behalf of named beneficiaries of the person who died in an accident, typically, a spouse, child or parents of the deceased. Wrongful death damages include funeral and administrative expenses and contributions (both monetary and non-monetary) that would have been made to the beneficiary by the deceased. A Survival Act lawsuit (or count in a Wrongful Death lawsuit) is brought by the administrator or executor of the estate of a person who died in an accident. The damages recoverable in a survival claim include conscious pain and suffering, past wage loss, and future earning power.
It is incredulous for a jury, quoted as stating that “no amount of damages would adequately punish” the hospital, to give $0 damages for the survivor of the deceased. This same jury awarded $2.5 Million in Wrongful Death damages because the hospital’s “policies, culture, and lack of competant supervision resulted in the death of Michael Rettger”.
The Plaintiffs’ attorneys, Paul A. Lagnese and David M. Paul, in Pittsburgh, have filed a motion for new trial, limited only to damages under the Survival Act because they believe the no-cause ($0 award) is against the weight of the evidence. Expert testimony from a CPA and an actuary estimated the deceased’s lost earning capacity at between $4 million and $15 million.
“For whatever reason, the jury decided to disregard the judge’s instructions and to disregard the overwhelming evidence we presented to the loss of earning capacity,” said Lagnese. The attorneys were not permitted to talk to members of the jury after the verdict.
It is inconceivable that a jury, instructed in the law and understanding its charge would render this verdict. Therefore, it is my assumption that the jury did not understand the law as charged by the judge. Thus, for all of you prospective jurors in Pennsylvania and across the United States, allow me to reinterate that the accidental death of a person caused by the negligent or intentional acts of another results in two separate, but related causes of action. The first is a wrongful death action, for compensation to the deceased for his conscious pain and suffering and his death (paid to his beneficiaries). The second is to his survivors, for loss of his companionship and present and future support (measured, in part, by current earnings and future earning capacity). This is a very simplistic explanation, but it covers the basics. Thus, for you prospective jurors, faced with a case similar to the Rettger case, these two causes of action should lead you to the conclusion that an award for both is appropriate and was, in the Rettger case. I wish Mr. Lagnese and Mr. Paul luck in their pursuit of additional and appropriate justice for the family of Mr. Rettger.
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