“Can I get compensatory damages in a wrongful death lawsuit in Alabama?”


“Can I get compensatory damages in a wrongful death lawsuit in Alabama?”

The answer is very rarely which is unusual among all of the states.  Here’s what I mean.

In most states, all you (and other family members can recover) are compensatory damages for wrongful death.  But not in Alabama

Unique Alabama law on wrongful death

But Alabama is unique — only the representative of the estate can sue and then only for punitive damages.  These are damages to punish, not to compensate.

The theory is that every human life is precious and a wealthy person should not be “worth more” than a poor person.  Young and old.  Educated and non-educated.  Someone with lots of family versus someone who has no family.

So how does Alabama value a wrongful death claim?

We look at the bad conduct of the defendant that led to the wrongful death.  Then the jury decides what amount of money is needed to punish the defendant (the one who did the bad thing).  And the amount to deter the defendant from ever doing this again.  As well as other people or companies that are in a similar situation.

Let’s use an example of a trucking company which kills someone on the interstate due to negligence

Imagine that JB Hunt or some other trucking company drives a truck in a negligent manner and kills James Smith on I65.

In most states, NO punitive damages would be recoverable as it is negligence, not recklessness/wantoness.  Instead the estate and/or family members would be compensated for their loss.  We would look at James Smith’s lost earning potential based upon his job, education, etc.

We would also have family members testify as to their loss.  His wife, his children, etc.

They would each be compensated.

But Alabama is different.  Alabama says even though it is “only” negligence, there are no compensatory damages.  Instead we only look at the conduct (negligently driving a tractor trailer truck) and then determine punitive damages to punish and deter.

So what amount of money is need to punish JB Hunt for taking a life?

Then what amount of money is needed to deter or discourage JB Hunt from ever having its drivers operate trucks in a negligent manner?  And what about the other trucking companies?  We need to send a message to them to not allow negligent drivers in Alabama.

There is only one punitive damage award but the jury is to think of the two factors — punishment and deterrence.

The amount might be $500,000 or $2,000,000 or $10,000,000.  It all depends on the evidence.

The focus is on the defendant, not the family

You will see from the above that in most states, we would focus on the family.  The loss the family suffered — economically, emotionally, etc.

But in Alabama, we focus NOT on the family but instead on the conduct of the defendant.

Imagine a camera filming — instead of looking at the family and what this did to them we look to the defendant.

This ties back in with the theory that each human life is equally precious and it should not matter how wealthy or popular or anything else you are — instead we say the amount of damages will be based on the conduct of the one who caused the wrongful death.

The one narrow exception to this rule — that is, when can you get compensatory damages in Alabama wrongful death?

If the suit is brought for personal injuries before James Smith (in our example) dies, then his personal claims survive his death.  So technically you could go to a trial in Alabama and recover compensatory damages for James Smith only (not his family members) and punitive damages for wrongful death.

This is pretty unusual but it does let you know there can be an advantage to filing suit quickly if someone is hurt badly as you may get some recovery for the loss as well as the punitive damages for wrongful death.

What do you do if you are facing this type of horrible situation where a loved one has been killed in Alabama?

First, you do have normally two years to bring suit in Alabama.  So there is not a rush to file suit or be pressured into hiring a lawyer.

Second, you do need to preserve the evidence of what has happened so this may involve hiring a lawyer to make sure event recorders, pictures, etc. are preserved.

Third, understand the law of Alabama and the focus is all on the defendant.

Fourth, when you do hire a lawyer, make sure it is someone that you feel confident in and comfortable with.  You need someone who can explain the sometimes strange legal world you are in — and do so in a way that you can understand.

If you would like to chat with me, call me at 205-879-2447.  We represent families all over Alabama.

Thank you for reading this and let me know if you have any questions…

John Watts

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