For a wrongful death case to proceed, the person filing the lawsuit must show that he or she suffered damages as a result of the wrongful death. In Illinois, a wrongful death case includes three basic categories of damages: economic, non-economic, and punitive.
Economic and non-economic damages are also known as “compensatory.” These two categories of damages come from actual, quantifiable financial losses suffered by the person suing due to the wrongful death of the deceased. For example, any specific medical and funeral expenses for the deceased would likely fall under the category of compensatory damages. However, courts usually look beyond just these direct costs.
In most cases, the economic losses resulting from the wrongful death will also include the loss of future earnings that deceased person would have had. Future earnings often include a calculation of the deceased’s salary and other financial benefits such as an employer-funded pension and health care contributions.
Some courts will also quantify the value of the deceased person’s contribution at home, which might include practical contributions such as housekeeping and intangible contributions such as companionship. When a plaintiff loses the deceased’s companionship, advice, and support, the plaintiff hasn’t suffered a direct economic loss. Even so, many courts now consider these non-economic losses when determining the award in a wrongful death case.
Potential non-economic damages may also cover the pain and suffering experienced by the plaintiff. However, some people confuse the “mental anguish” award with punitive damages. The courts may determine punitive awards on whether the defendant needs a punishment for his or her conduct, in addition to a punishment for the emotions of the survivors. Thus, a lawsuit might include a punitive award if the defendant caused the wrongful death with an intentional, reckless, or particularly negligent act.
While a punitive award and mental anguish award are two distinct types of awards in a lawsuit, the justification for an additional punitive award may also provide a reason for the court to increase a mental anguish award. And in states that don’t allow punitive awards in wrongful death suits, survivors might still be able to obtain mental anguish awards.
Calculating An Award
The method used to calculate a wrongful death case award can be complex and certainly varies by state. Generally, the age of the deceased person will have a great impact on the final award. In particular, the death of a young adult who had a good portion of his or her work life ahead may result in a greater loss of future earnings than the death of someone who had already retired. This approach to calculations may strike many as distasteful, but state laws and courts need to follow an identifiable standard by which they can determine the extent of the wrongful death award in any given case.
Specific conditions in a case might limit the amount of the damages award. For example, workers’ compensation may limit an employer’s liability. In a medical malpractice case, the court might reduce the wrongful death award by any amount received by a plaintiff from other sources as compensation for the death.
Finally, if the court decides that the deceased contributed to his or her own death, the law might require a reduction of the award amount. For example, if the court finds that a deceased is 20 percent liable for his or her own death, then the court might reduce the damages award by 20 percent.