What is a life worth in New York?
When a person dies (the "decedent") due to the negligence of others, the estate may make claims for damages against those at fault. The claims can be broken down to those which are pre-death ("Personal Injury" claims), and those which are post-death ("Wrongful Death" claims).
When a person dies, any claims he had while alive passes to the estate. Theses pre-death personal injury claims are limited to the time period between the injury causing event and death. They may include:
- Pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life by the decedent; Medical and other Expenses incurred; Lost Income; and Pre-impact fear suffered by the decedent.
Pre-impact fear would be recoverable in those cases where the pain and suffering may have been short or non-existent, but the decedent was aware he was about to or was likely to die. An example would be where a person dies instantly in a collision with another vehicle or object. There would be little pain and suffering but there would be fear of the collision and impact.
Money recovered for the pre-death claims will go to the estate and be distributed according to the decedent's will, or if there is no will then according to New York State Law.
"Wrongful Death" is the legal term used for those claims arising due to a person's death due to the fault of another. A claimant's action for Wrongful Death is governed by statute. In accordance with Estate Powers and Trust Laws (EPTL) Section 5-4.3(a), damages in a wrongful death action are to be "fair and just compensation for the pecuniary injuries" resulting from the descendent's death for the survivors for whom the action is brought.
"Pecuniary" means monetary, thus "Pecuniary Injuries" means loss of money. A Wrongful Death claim then may include claims for:
-Funeral expenses; Burial Costs; Lost Income; Loss of Inheritance; Loss of Services; Loss of Guidance; and Loss of Support.
Noticeably absent from what is recoverable from the above list is recovery for grief for loss of a loved one by the survivors. Also absent is the pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, of the survivors, due to the loss of a loved one.
An infant child can recover for the economic value of the loss of services provided by his parent (i.e. what it would cost someone to cook, clean, rear, teach, nurture, and guide the child). A spouse can likewise recover for the economic loss of his or her married partner. In fact any distributee who received some sort of support from the decedent, may have grounds for a Wrongful Death claim. The essence of pecuniary damages in a wrongful death case is the "distributee's reasonable expectancy of future assistance or support by the decedent was frustrated by the decedent's death."
The more support (whether via financial or physical act) that the decedent provided to a distributee, the greater the wrongful death claim will be.
If a family member or loved one has died in an accident you should contact an attorney to determine the rights of the surviving family. Zalman Schnurman & Miner is a New York Personal Injury Law Firm that has experience handing Wrongful Death Actions. Call 1-800-LAWLINE (1-800-529-5463) for a free consultation.