Wrongful Death

One of the most moving descriptions of the effect of a death on a family was written by a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court more than sixty years ago, when discussing the compensation available for a husband who had lost a wife, and children who had lost a mother, in a tractor-trailer accident:

The decedent Mrs. Spangler, who, at the time of her death, had a life expectancy of 32.59 years, was survived by her husband and three children, aged respectively 14 years, 13 years, and 5 months. The only question on this appeal must be stated in terms which might seem materialistic, namely: What did Mrs. Spangler mean to these people in terms of money? Naturally, no husband and no children see in the person dearest to them a money equivalent, and, during life, such an evaluation would be unqualifiedly brutal and offensive. However, with death, problems arise which must be solved, harsh and heartrending as they may be. Thus, as Mr. Spangler and his children now face a future with the main pillar of their family structure missing, the question inescapably follows: How much do they need to supplant that pillar?

To begin with, there was very definite physical work performed by Mrs. Spangler, for which no sums were drawn from the family budget. Money is now needed to pay for those services. Mrs. Spangler did the household work: she washed, ironed, cooked, and sewed. She did all the housecleaning, made some of the children’s clothing, helped her husband paint the house, she put together draperies and rugs. All these services can be translated into pecuniary values because one can presumably go into the labor market and find a housekeeper to perform those labors. But the amount paid to such a housekeeper would not compensate for Mrs. Spangler’s displacement. There are services performed by a wife-mother which no housekeeper can supply.

The fact that there is no mathematical formula whereby compassionately bestowed benefits can be converted into a precise number of bank notes does not mean that the tortfeasor will be excused from making suitable reimbursement for their loss. The law commands that the wrongdoer pay what justice requires and common sense dictates. The man who accomplishes a great wrong cannot escape accountability on the basis that his responsibility cannot be computed to the last dollar and penny.

The evidence reveals that Mrs. Spangler was unstintingly devoted to her family. The record shows that her loyalty was expressed in an incessant activity, tireless energy, and never-flagging concern. She took the children to church regularly, she added to their religious instruction, she prayed with them, she accompanied them to baseball games and on fishing trips. All these things — such as companionship, comfort, society, guidance, solace, and protection which go into the vase of family happiness — are the things for which a wrongdoer must pay when he shatters the vase.

Spangler v. Helm’s New York-Pittsburgh Motor Express, 396 Pa. 482 (1959).

A wrongful death case thus has two parts, each as important as the other. First, the survivors must prove the defendant was responsible for the death, and that the death wouldn’t have happened if the defendant had done what they were supposed to do. Second, the survivors need to truly show the jury the “companionship, comfort, society, guidance, solace, and protection which go into the vase of family happiness,” so the jury can understand what was lost.

Think of when you read about a death in the newspaper. If you don’t know the person, your heart goes out to their loved ones, but that’s it — there’s no call to action, and no deeper understanding of what that person meant to their families. An impartial jury is no different: they are sympathetic, like all people, but it takes something more to cause them to award the full measure of damages that “a wrongdoer must pay when he shatters the vase.”

An example case we handled:

In the middle of a cold February night on a stretch of Interstate 80, a group of college students are on their way back to Philadelphia. They are all from Singapore, among the best and brightest, and they’re studying at the University of Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. They’ve been taking trips around the area to really experience America, and this time they drove 230 miles to Clearfield, to try the 15-pound burger at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub. The four of them are able to eat less than a quarter of it.

On their way back, a snowstorm is on its way in, road conditions are getting worse, and they spin out in the middle of the interstate. Thankfully, it’s late at night, and so no one was near them and no one was injured. But their luck doesn’t last long: a minute later, an 18 wheeler slams into them. One student is killed and two are permanently injured, including a shattered pelvis in one and permanent eye damage in the other.

The case is by no means easy. The truck driver will claim he was driving an appropriate speed under the conditions and that there was no way for him to see the car was stopped there or to take evasive action until it was too late.

So we get to work. The first step should be simple: find out how fast the truck was going by downloading its electronic control module, commonly called the black box. But we can’t do that, because a state trooper directed the truck driver to start up again and pull over into a rest area, which wiped the memory from the black box, replacing the data about the crash with data about him slowly pulling into a rest stop. So we have the vehicles carefully examined by accident reconstruction professionals, who tell us that the truck was definitely going more than 55 miles an hour at the time of impact, and likely was going more than 60 miles an hour. Since the truck driver himself says that he hit the brakes before impact, that means he was going even faster – and thus way too fast for the conditions.

Then we pour through the driver’s logs, as well as the shipping company’s’ records, and we realize that they don’t make mathematical sense. Either he is regularly driving at an average speed over 85 mph, or he is driving long past the maximum workhours mandated by federal law. Probably, it’s combination of both: routinely exceeding the speed limit, and routinely driving when he should be resting.

But like I said above, that’s not the only part of the case: we also have to prove, for the young woman who died, what she meant to those around her, and what was lost by her passing. Her family doesn’t speak English, and she was the first among them to go to college. She also had only been in the United States for a matter of months before the accident, making it difficult to find local witnesses who could talk about her. We could, and did, hire an interpreter to help us with the family, but how would we communicate the full extent of her family’s loss to a jury?

We went back to the burger, and to her many trips around the area, to construct a detailed timeline of everything she had done in just a few months to explore the area around Philadelphia, including New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania even as far west as Pittsburgh. Her drive and desire to explore was an essential part of her personality, the type of universal human yearning that anyone could understand and relate to. She was the type of person so vivacious that she made others feel alive, and we could show that to a jury who didn’t know her.

When all was said and done, we had a tremendous case put together, the full proof of liability — including punitive damages — and the full proof of damages, of everything in the “vase of family happiness.” We told the trucking company’s insurer to tender the entire insurance policy immediately. If it did not, we would not settle at all, would obtain a verdict well in excess of the policy, and then would come after the insurance company for bad faith. They tendered the policy.

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