Compensation in death cases
The Palm Beach Post’s article about an excessive award a Palm Beach County jury gave in tobacco litigation drew attention to the modern method by which courts analyze a litigant’s entitlement to compensatory damages in death cases. “18.5 million jury award against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco ruled excessive,” Nov. 30, 2016. Whether it be caused by a bad product, such as tobacco, or by a wrongful actor, such as a bad driver in a car accident, Florida law (through its courts) addresses the numbers that ought to accompany such losses. We’re talking about the pain and suffering award juries award to surviving family members because the economic losses associated with medical expenses and with lost time at work are treated differently, and may be awarded in addition to the pain and suffering amounts. But, the Fourth District Court of Appeal (DCA) rendered recent opinions identifying the considerations courts should look for. The primary consideration from which lawful death awards are formed should give more to the much closer relationships between the survivors and the decedents during the decedent’s illness. See R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Odom, __ So. 3d ___; 2016 WL 6992162 (4th DCA, Nov. 30, 2016). Then, the victims should be categorized as a) spouses; b) adult children; and c) dependent children. In Odom, the Fourth DCA noted that for a surviving spouse, an $11 Million award is probably okay. It always depends on the circumstances of the case. On the other hand, awards over $6M, given to surviving adult children, are probably too high and likely to be struck down as excessive, as in Ms. Odom’s case. Notably, however, awarding $7.5 Million and $4 Million to a child (over 9 years old) and another (just grown out of infancy) are not necessarily excessive. R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Grossman, ___ So. 3d ___; 2017WL34572 (Fla. 4th DCA, Jan. 4, 2017). By the way, a jury also awarded the minor children $22.5 Million in Punitive damages for the loss of their mother to cigarettes, and the Fourth DCA affirmed the award. The above mentioned cases are still active and ongoing, but give practitioners help is evaluating their cases.