The laws of Alabama that govern wrongful death cases is unique in the jurisprudence of this Country. In Alabama, the only damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death case are punitive damages. The policy behind this rule is the belief that all human life is equally precious and that it is impossible to put a value on anyones life.
In other states, in order to prove damages in a wrongful death case, it is necessary to prove the lifetime earning capacity of the person who died. In those states, when someone is killed through the negligence or wrongful act of another, the damages that can be recovered depend upon the work history, education, background, and profession of the person who was killed. This is not true in Alabama. It has long been held by Alabama courts that the purpose of the Alabama wrongful death law is the preservation of human life. In fact, when Judges charge juries at the conclusion of wrongful death case the juries are always told that the purpose of the law is the preservation of human life. Here is how this works: If someone commits a negligent act or wrongful act that results in a death of another person a jury may assess punitive damages against the wrongdoer. Punitive damages are for the purpose of punishment, the idea being that the defendant and other people similarly situated will be deterred from committing similar acts in the future. Thus, the law, as a deterrent, encourages people to behave more responsibly and more safely.
The only person who can initiate a wrongful death lawsuit in Alabama is the personal representative of the deceased. Therefore, an executor or administrator must be the one to file the lawsuit. Damages that are recovered from a wrongful death case in Alabama are not subject to the payment of the debts or liabilities of the deceased and they must be distributed directly to the heirs according to Alabama law. In other words, the provisions of a Will regarding distribution of the estate of the deceased would not govern the distribution of wrongful death proceeds.
One may question if this unique wrongful death law really acts as a deterrent to negligent, careless or wrongful conduct. We think that it does. We all know that motor vehicles are safer now than they were 30 years ago. We all know that other products are manufactured now with more safety features in mind than formerly was the case. Lawyers know that today road contractors are more careful in building roads because of a threat of a wrongful death lawsuit.
One of the biggest dangers today that we face as a society is the danger of people texting and driving. We predict that as more and more juries respond assertively to this incredibly reckless conduct, less and less people will text and drive. We certainly hope so.
The attorneys at Jinks, Crow & Dickson have handled many wrongful death cases over the last 4 decades. We believe that Alabama’s law, though unique, carries out a very noble purpose, that of preserving human life. We will continue to represent our clients in these difficult and tragic cases with all of the experience and resources that can be brought to bear on them.