The Los Angeles Daily Journal this week reported a $1 Million jury verdict out of Kern County CA involving an traffic collision between tractor trailer and a passenger automobile (Cardenas v. Hettinga Transportation, Inc.; Freddy Garcia and California Department of Transportation, Case No. S-1500-CV-279). My analysis of the verdict, pre-trial settlement discussions, and post trial motions is as follows:
Facts of The Case: The plaintiff was the mother of the decedent, who died instantly when her vehicle broad sided a semi truck. The plaintiff contended that the truck driver negligently operated his vehicle by running a stop sign. The truck driver and trucking company Defendant appeared to concede liability but, disputed the amount of claimed damages. The plaintiff also asserted a claim against CALTRANS for an alleged dangerous condition of public property. The claim against the State of California was resolved for a nominal sum ($10,000) and the case proceeded to a jury trial against the trucker and his freight carrier employer.
Damages and Settlement Discussions: In California wrongful death civil actions , the plaintiff may claim both out of pocket losses such as lost income the decedent was contributing to the family for financial support, funeral and burial expenses, and other similar losses. In this case, it would appear (although not stated in the reported verdict) that plaintiff either did not have such damages or waived them off and simply claimed “general damages” in the lawsuit. So-called “general” or “non-economic” damages in civil claims where someone is killed are awarded based upon California Civil Jury Instruction 3921, which states that a jury must come up with a dollar figure value for the loss of, “love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support.” The second half of this jury instruction states that, in determining this value, the jury is specifically not to consider the plaintiff’s “grief, sorrow, or mental anguish, the decedent’s pain and suffering, or the poverty or wealth of the plaintiff.”
According to the reported verdict, the plaintiff claimed that her last settlement offer prior to trial was $2.5 Million. Defense counsel claimed that it was $6 Million. Ultimately, the jury awarded an even $1 Million and the plaintiff was able to obtain an additional $25,000 in “awardable costs” with a post trial motion.
My Analysis of this Verdict As A California Wrongful Death Lawyer: Damages in a wrongful death claim based upon the state of the law in CA are very difficult to place a dollar figure on and even more difficult to argue to a jury! This would be my main take on this verdict. Telling a jury, on the one hand, that they are to award money based upon such general concepts as the “loss of love, society and companionship” on the one hand but, that they should not consider “grief” or “mental anguish” on the other hand gives a jury a very vague notion of how to calculate such damages. In my opinion, this leads to a lot of verdicts where: (1) a nice round number is awarded; and (2) the number is based upon underlying jury bias or notions of what is “enough” and what is “too much”. In this case, the barrier was hit, in my opinion, at seven figures (i.e. one millions dollars). The plaintiff, through their attorney, clearly argued that a life lost was worth more than this amount but, the defense clearly argued to limit the damages to this barrier amount or less.
Having done a jury trial in Kern County, I know that the jury pool is conservative. Kern County is a fairly rural county with the economics based heavily on agriculture and oil and gas production. There are a lot of truck accidents and, unfortunately, people are struck and killed or seriously by tractor trailers hauling produce and other goods many times a year. I applaud the efforts of plaintiff’s counsel in this case to put on the testimony of the decedent’s mother as to what the loss of her son meant to her and to argue to the jury that this should have significant value. The ultimate question is very difficult to answer, though: What is the value of one human life!