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Wrongful Death Damages Limited in Many Inmate Cases

by Carly Van Thomme

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the Sixth Circuit, the recoverable compensatory damages in wrongful death cases are sometimes surprisingly limited. This article explains the reasons why and the circumstances affecting damages for 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wrongful death, as well as how parties can use this legal framework to resolve cases at an early stage of litigation.

It is understandably alarming to be faced with a wrongful death lawsuit. Indeed, it is a very serious matter: A person has died, and his family wants to hold someone responsible. In the corrections environment, sometimes inmates die and no one is to blame—but even then it often takes litigation to prove that. Other times, there is real potential for liability. Yet, in wrongful death cases claiming deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, the recoverable damages are sometimes surprisingly low.

In Michigan, where state law claims (e.g., negligence claims) are involved, wrongful death plaintiffs can recover damages for (1) “reasonable medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses for which the estate is liable,” (2) “reasonable compensation for the pain and suffering, while conscious, undergone by the deceased person during the period intervening between the time of the injury and death,” and (3) “damages for the loss of financial support and the loss of the society and companionship of the deceased.” MCL § 600.2922(6).

Plaintiffs sometimes file wrongful death claims in federal court rather than state court. Often these are prisoner civil rights cases under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Although federal courts apply state law regarding wrongful death in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 cases, the recoverable damages in these in federal wrongful death cases can be different. Under the jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee), where the wrongful death plaintiff brings only a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, the plaintiff cannot recover damages for loss of financial support or loss of society and companionship, because a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights violation claim is “entirely personal to the direct victim,” the decedent—with no derivative claim for loss of consortium available to the decedent’s family. Claybrook v. Birchwell, 199 F.3d 350, 357 (6th Cir. 2000); Lee v. City of Norwalk, 529 Fed. Appx. 778, 781 (6th Cir. 2013).

This limitation becomes a harsh reality for plaintiffs in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wrongful death cases where the decedent did not experience conscious pain and suffering and where the decedent did not incur any medical expenses, because in those circumstances, the estate can recover only the cost of funeral and burial as compensatory damages. An example of this is a situation in which a person dies immediately upon being shot by police where deadly force was not justified. Blair v. Harris, 993 F. Supp. 721, 730 (E.D. Mich., January 27, 2014) (police shooting death case with $8,780.00 in damages and $500.00 in costs awarded). Indeed, it is a rare case in which there is clear evidence that the decedent endured significant conscious pain and suffering. In many more 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wrongful death lawsuits, the evidence is lacking or open to different interpretations.

Compensatory damages do not represent the entirety of recoverable sums, however. In addition to compensatory damages, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, a victorious plaintiff can recover attorney fees. Also, the plaintiff can recover punitive damages—but only when the plaintiff can establish that the defendants acted with evil intent or with reckless or callous indifference. Punitive damages are difficult to prove: An experienced federal judge recently estimated that juries award punitive damages in only one of every 200 trials.

This legal framework provides incentive to both plaintiffs and defendants to settle early when 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wrongful death liability is likely. The plaintiffs’ bargaining chips are the risk of punitive damages and high attorney fees in the event of trial, while the defendants’ bargaining chips are the limited compensatory damages and the rarity of punitive damages awards.

If you are faced with 42 U.S.C. § 1983 wrongful death litigation, contact Chapman Law Group to retain attorneys with the knowledge and experience necessary to provide you with the best defense possible.