Why are some Wrongful Death Cases Worth More than Others?

One of the biggest factors in determining the value of a wrongful death case is the skill of the attorney in establishing the evidence in the case and presenting it.  A skilled attorney will start building the evidence of damages as soon as possible after being hired.  Having prosecuted, tried, and settled dozens of wrongful death cases in my career, I have made it a point to study the factors that make some wrongful death case values higher than others.

The main factors I’ve found are counterintuitive.  You would think the biggest factor would be how close the relationships were between the deceased and the survivors.  That is a big factor, but the biggest factor is the ability of the plaintiff’s attorney to establish the defendant’s carelessness.  Jurors are much more enthusiastic about punishing wrongdoing than they are about compensating survivors of a wrongful death.  The wrongful death statute specifically says that the purpose of the law is to shift the burden of the losses resulting from a wrongful death from the survivors of the decedent to the wrongdoer.  If the plaintiff’s attorney can establish gross and blatant violations of well-established rules meant to protect people from injury and death, the size of the verdict goes way up.

Another factor I’ve found when negotiating settlements is how the evidence related to the plaintiff’s damages is developed.  It’s vital for the survivor of a wrongful death to seek counseling to deal with the loss in a healthy way.  I’ve seen clients turn to drinking and drugs after the death of a loved one, and their behavior only reduces the value of their case.  On the other hand, if the survivor makes a sincere effort to deal with the loss through counseling, the counselor becomes an incredibly valuable witness in the case and can testify objectively and professionally about how the loss of a loved one has affected the plaintiff.  The Florida courts have held that in many cases, we can’t just hire a grief expert to explain the severity of the plaintiff’s damages, but the testimony of a treating physician or counselor is always allowed.  Likewise, I’ve found it incredibly valuable to photograph and record the memorial services to establish evidence of how the decedent will be remembered and highlight the full magnitude of the survivors’ loss due to their beloved’s early demise.

Looking at 100 wrongful death jury trial cases across the State of Florida, we saw eight high-value outliers in the data set and ten high-value cases altogether. Any case over $4.25 million was considered an outlier in this set due to the inherent nature of the set’s distribution of values. The outlier values we found in this data set were $5 million with two cases at this value, $10 million with two cases at this value, $10,144,600, $11.5 million, $11.8 million, $12.24 million, $15,206,113, and $30 million. These outliers are all out of the ordinary trend of values for the sample set of wrongful death cases. This trend and the outlier deviation can be seen in the extreme peaks of the data in Figure 1. 

Figure 1. In this line graph, you can see the outliers of the sample data indicated by the high peaks of each high-value case.

In technical terms, statistical outliers can be indicative of values that go far above the norm of any data set; principally, outliers call a researcher to give attention to that data value to figure out why that value would deviate from the normal trend of values. For our purposes, outliers call anyone analyzing jury verdict research to a case to look at the nuances of that case and to read closer into the details of the case to determine the threshold for why some cases receive higher verdicts in a jury trial setting than another fairly comparable case. High-value outliers should also be analyzed in terms of their ability to skew the average of a data set from their extraordinarily high value, so it’s important to always calculate averages with and without the outliers for the most representative average of a data set.

In looking at the wrongful death case sample, the data with outliers normally have extenuating circumstances which set them apart from the overall trend of the other case values in the data set. To typify this, let’s look at a few examples.

In Case Study 19, we first noticed that the defendant is the University of Central Florida’s Athletics Association, a public university in Orlando boasting about 50,000 students at any given time. This case involves a 19-year-old student-athlete on a full scholarship to the university for football. The young athlete died suddenly during a spring football practice. After his death, the parents of the student sued UCF’s Athletics Association claiming that the defendant’s employees negligently failed to appropriately manage the athlete’s sickle cell trait, failed to inform him and its critical employees that the athlete had tested positive for the trait, and failed to react appropriately when the athlete showed signs of a sickling crisis on the field. The plaintiff further claimed that the crisis would have been treatable and preventable had the coaching staff noticed the athlete’s distress sooner and they intentionally deprived the athlete of water and training staff during a tough practice. 

The defendant denied that the athlete’s death was caused by a sickling crisis and proposed that the death was from a rare heart condition that obstructed blood flow to the heart causing the electrical impulses to stop. Though both sides presented medical expert opinions, the jury ultimately sided with the plaintiff and awarded $10,000,000 to the athlete’s mother and father in non-economic damages.

Case Study 22 involves a trucker driving hours exceeding the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Hours of Service limits. The decedent was a man in his late 20s who was riding his motorcycle when he was killed in a collision with the defendant’s tractor-trailer. The decedent’s widow sued the driver and his employer for negligence in violating the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Hours of Service limits, which prohibits interstate truck drivers from driving more than eleven hours after a 10-hour consecutive break. At the time of the incident, the driver and his employer had been using paper logs instead of electronic logs, which were used by most large trucking companies. The paper logs had allowed the driver to drive more miles than federal regulations allowed through falsification of the logs. In this case, the jury opted for a comparative negligence verdict, assigning 93% negligence to the defendant and 7% to the decedent reducing the original verdict of $15,206,113.

Another case, Case Study 39, involved the highest case value of $30 million. In this case, the defendant’s physicians failed to correctly treat and diagnose a 10-year-old patient with a puncture wound, resulting in his death. The child reportedly stepped on a nail and sustained a puncture wound to the bottom of the left foot when his parents took him to the defendant hospital’s emergency room (ER). While at the ER, the child was seen by one defendant physician, who diagnosed him with septic arthritis and admitted him to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics and oral ibuprofen. The child was eventually discharged and given home care with IV antibiotics when he developed new symptoms and was taken back to the ER and treated by the remaining defendant physicians who ran lab tests that showed an extremely high level of antibiotics, among other serious internal problems. 

The child was later pronounced brain dead and removed from life support. After his death, the child’s mother filed suit against the defendant physicians, hospital, and home health care service, claiming that the physicians knew or should have known the appropriate method to diagnose, prescribe antibiotics, monitor antibiotic treatment, and manage and monitor a 10-year-old patient when receiving potentially toxic drugs. The suit claimed the hospital and home health care service were vicariously liable for the actions of their employees or agents. The jury sided with the plaintiff but reduced the verdict to $27.6 million dollars. 

Finally, Case Study 66 involved the defendant, a nightclub in Orlando who threw out a patron who overdosed on Ecstasy without calling for medical assistance, resulting in the patron’s death and a $5 million-dollar verdict. When the decedent was a patron at the defendant nightclub, he reportedly consumed Ecstasy from a fellow patron and was kicked out of the club around 5:30 A.M. Employees of the club made no attempt to help him or call for medical assistance. The decedent was taken to Orlando Regional Medical center at 6:20 A.M. and was pronounced dead at 6:55 A.M. 

Prior to the decedent’s overdose, the club had seen five overdoses between February and July of the same year; the club also received notices of nuisance abatement. The decedent’s parents filed suit against the club, claiming it was negligent because it had notice of patrons overdosing, yet they failed to take minimal steps to safeguard patrons. The jury awarded the plaintiff $5 million in damages.

If you have a potential wrongful death case, I strongly recommend you consult an experienced wrongful death attorney immediately.  


Jimmy Fasig

Wrongful Death Attorney