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Are "non-economic damages" capped in a fatal accident?

A previous post here discussed the difference between "economic" and "non-economic" damages in relation to civil actions for personal injury and wrongful death. Our readers in Seattle might remember that economic damages refer to relatively objectively quantifiable injury, such as recovery for medical costs associated with an accident, or actual lost wages due to inability to work as a result of the injury. Non-economic damages, on the other hand, refer to more subjective claims, such as compensation for pain and suffering, or loss of companionship or consortium.

Washington, like many states, places a statutory limit, or "cap," on the amount of non-economic damages a plaintiff can receive based upon a fatal accident. This limit is found by multiplying the constant .43 by the life expectancy and average annual wage of the victim. Included under this cap are so-called "derivative" claims, such as loss of consortium, destruction of a parent-child relationship or loss of companionship. These claims are derivative because they are lodged by people other than the injured party. The statute specifies that the life expectancy is to be determined by using the actuarial tables published by the state's commission on insurance, but shall be no less than 15 years.

Interestingly, if the case is tried by a jury, the statute bars the court or legal representatives from informing the jury of this cap on non-economic damages. This is likely done to prevent juries from simply calculating the maximum damages amount and using that figure as a default verdict. Oftentimes, once juries find that a person is liable for an injury, especially a death, they tend to award higher damages amounts than judges do in the same context. If a jury awards an amount for non-economic damages higher than the statutory limitation, the award will be modified by operation of law to the maximum allowed under the statute.

As can be seen by the above formula, the younger and healthier the victim of a fatal accident, the higher any non-economic damages award is likely to be. Even with the cap, the loved ones of a victim of another's negligence might be compensated for their untimely loss.

Source: Post Type: Q&A

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