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Georgia Traffic Death Settled for $1.4 Million

Court: Carteret County
Verdict/Settlement: $1.4 Million
Mediator: Rene S. Elliot
Special Damages: $8,844 for funeral expenses, $1,200 for burial
Date of Settlement: August 17, 2012
Most Helpful Expert: Francis W. Rushing Ph.D
Insurance Carrier: Auto Owners & Central Mutual
Attorneys for Plaintiff: Robert E. Whitley (Kinston) and Ann Ochsner (Raleigh) of Whitley Law Firm

Description: Jurors like to know who’s getting what when assessing an award for a wrongful death claim, and in North Carolina those who die without leaving dependents behind sometimes create complicated deliberations.

That’s what Robert E. Whitley found after presenting North Carolina focus groups with a wrongful death claim on behalf of a plaintiff killed in Georgia. Whitley’s client walked away with a $1.4 million pre-suit settlement.

Georgia’s wrongful death law bases damage awards on loss to the decedent rather than loss to the beneficiaries as in North Carolina. The plaintiff was a 23-year-old, self-employed mechanic who worked on automobiles and boats, refurbishing them for resale. He is survived by his mother and father, a 19-year-old brother and a girlfriend of seven years. He had a high school education and had completed some courses in mechanics and welding at the community college in Carteret County.

He died after a tractor trailer rear-ended the vehicle he was riding in. The accident occurred in Georgia. The suit could have been filed in North Carolina or Georgia but the Georgia wrongful death law would have applied in either venue.

North Carolina is a survivor state so it’s the loss to a decedent’s heirs that is crucial in determining a damage award. In this case, the heirs were parents who were not financially dependent on the decedent. They would have not have been helped by North Carolina law, Whitley said. Since the plaintiff wasn’t legally responsible to support anyone, the award would have been less. Results from the focus group studies showed that the test jurors struggled with the question of who would benefit from an award.

Georgia law puts makes the present value of the decedent’s lifetime expected earnings the crucial factor in an award. Whitley retained economist Francis W. Rushing to compute that amount.

All parties, including the two insurance companies covering the defendant vehicle, agreed to the settlement in pre-suit mediation. There was an additional $60,000 set aside for payment of some other claims, from which plaintiff will receive residue.