An Impossible Task
What is a human life worth?
An impossible question to answer, but one that juries and courts are regularly asked to decide when awarding non-economic damages in wrongful death cases—an unenviable task.
As a reminder, actual damages are meant to make a plaintiff whole—in other words, return them to the position they held before they were injured. Actual damages come in two varieties, economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages reimburse an injured person for measurable losses, such as medical bills and lost wages. Non-economic damages are awarded for pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement and loss of consortium.
Importantly, actual damages do not punish the defendant. A separate category—exemplary damages—are used to punish the defendant.
Actual damages are viewed from the plaintiff’s perspective, unrelated to the defendant’s conduct. Take, for example, a collision between a vehicle and a pedestrian. The injured pedestrian’s medical bills are the same, whether the driver of the car made a once-in-a-lifetime mistake or was driving drunk. Similarly, the injured person’s level of disfigurement and pain suffered are unaffected by the wrongfulness of the driver’s conduct.
Economic damages are quantifiable. But non-economic damages are difficult to quantify because they are not tied to anything that truly is measurable—no one can put a dollar amount on the grief of losing a loved one or impact of a life-altering injury.
The imprecision of calculating non-economic damages gives plaintiff’s lawyers room to maneuver, and means non-economic damage awards can often balloon into the millions of dollars. Juries rightly feel empathetic for grieving families and think they are doing right by compensating them as much as possible for their loss. And sometimes, jurors are led to believe that an award of non-economic damages can be used as a method to punish the defendant.
But that’s not the way our legal system works. Courts have routinely held that even non-economic damage awards must be “the result of a rational effort, grounded in evidence, to compensate the plaintiff for the injury.”
Take, for example, Gregory v. Chohan, an 18-wheeler crash case in which the trial court awarded $16.8 million to the surviving family of a man who died in a multi-car pileup on a dark, icy highway. Of that judgment, $15 million was awarded in non-economic damages for pain and suffering and loss of consortium. It was affirmed by the Dallas Court of Appeals in 2020 and appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
SCOTX was charged with determining if the amount of non-economic damages was justifiable, ultimately deciding it was not.
Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Jimmy Blacklock said, “Assigning a dollar value to non-financial, emotional injuries such as mental anguish or loss of companionship will never be a matter of mathematical precision…”
“Here, the plaintiffs produced—and the court of appeals recounted—sufficient, even ample, evidence demonstrating the existence of compensable mental anguish and loss of companionship suffered by [the plaintiff’s] family. But nothing in the record or in the plaintiffs’ arguments demonstrates a rational connection between the injuries suffered and the amount awarded. The arguments made to the jury regarding the proper amount included references to the price of fighter jets, the value of artwork, and the number of miles driven by [the defendant’s] trucks.” (emphasis added)
“Rather than rationally connecting the evidence to an amount of damages, these arguments did just the opposite by encouraging the jury to base an ostensibly compensatory award on improper considerations that have no connection to the rational compensation of [the plaintiff’s] family.”
This is just one example of why the guardrails implemented by the Legislature in 2021’s House Bill 19 were necessary. This measure requires personal injury lawsuits involving commercial vehicles to be conducted in two phases: the first to determine who is liable for the crash and the amount of actual damages suffered by the plaintiff, and the second to determine the amount of exemplary damages to be assessed against a defendant engaged in wrongful conduct.
This mechanism allows juries to focus on the cause of the collision and the extent of the plaintiff’s injury in the first phase, and on the relative wrongfulness of the defendant’s conduct in the second phase, ensuring juries are holding the correct party responsible and that damages are actually tied to the facts of the case.