$6 Million Wrongful Death Award Didn’t Meet “Reasonable Level of Certainty” says 4th Circuit COA

more+
less-

In NC wrongful death damages can include claims for lost services, care and companionship of the decedent.  NC courts recognize that such damages are not often capable of “exact ascertainment.”  Nonetheless, these damages are “not automatic” and instead “must be proven to a reasonable level of certainly, and may not be based on pure conjecture.” DiDonato v. Wortman.

In Fontenot v. Taser International Inc., Darryl Turner (age 17) died from cardiac arrest after a confrontation with police in which he was struck in the chest by a taser.  Turner’s mother and administrator of his estate sued Taser International Inc. and a jury awarded the estate $10 million.  The trial court then remitted the verdict to $6.15 million.

On appeal the US Court of Appeals (4th Circuit) addressed whether the $6.15 award was excessive (i.e., not supported by the evidence at trial). The 4th Circuit stated that the only methodology suggested by [the estate] to aid the jury’s calculation of compensatory damages was counsel’s suggestion that the jury take just some arbitrary, small, conservative number, like $1,000 for a week. Or if we were to take a bigger number like $2,000 for a week of this loss. And multiply it out over a 40 year life expectancy, being conservative, rounding it down, you would get for each plaintiff [father and mother], a range of let’s say between 2 and 4 or $5 million.”

The 4th Circuit in ordering a new trial on the issue of damages observed:

  • the $10 million verdict was the highest amount from plaintiff’s attorney’s suggested methodology
  • the estate “failed to present any evidence showing that Turner’s services, care, and companionship had a value approaching $1,000-$2,000 per week, per parent.”

The 4th Circuit stated that Turner’s parents ”demonstrated their close relationships with Turner, as well as Turner’s good character.  We have no doubt that Turner had significant value to his parents, and that they are entitled to a substantial award for the loss of his services, care and companionship.  However, we cannot agree that the evidence, viewed in light most favorable to [the estate], met the required ‘reasonable level of certainty’ to establish that such services, care, and companionship had a monetary value approaching $6.15 million.”