If you die in the United States and your death is someone else’s fault, your surviving family members probably can recover legal damages (i.e., money) from the person who wrongfully caused your death. For example, Georgia allows a surviving spouse to recover “the full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(a). Placing a monetary value on a human life is a notion and, subsequently, a process fraught with moral, ethical, and practical obstacles, but, as democracy is to forms of government, we have come up with scant else in the way of providing a legal remedy to the surviving victims of a wrongful death. (Indeed, the availability of civil wrongful death actions offer these victims at least two things the criminal justice system does not provide: 1) the possibility of receiving tangible compensation– again, in the form of money– for the loss of their family member, and 2) the ability to control the legal action directly, as the plaintiff in the lawsuit, rather than as an observer to a criminal case controlled by a government prosecutor, who is not strictly bound by the wishes of surviving victims.)
If someone decides that you are going to make Alabama your eternal sweet home, though, things will go a bit differently for your surviving kin than they would had you died in neighboring Georgia, or, really, anywhere else in the country. Unlike those in other states, Alabama’s wrongful death statute does not afford survivors the right to recover based, in some measure, on the value of the life of the decedent; instead, Alabama courts have made clear that only punitive damages are available to wrongful death plaintiffs. Atkins v. Lee, 603 So.2d 937, 942-43 (Ala. 1992). Rather than compensating the surviving family of the deceased for the lost value of their deceased relative’s life, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer and thereby deter such wrongdoing in the future. Instead of the value of the life of the particular deceased individual, in Alabama, the sole measure of damages potentially available to wrongful death plaintiffs is based on the (jury’s view of the) reprehensibility of the wrongdoer’s action:
The amount of damages should be directly related to the amount of wrongdoing on the part of the defendant or defendants. In assessing damages, [the jury is] not to consider the monetary value of the life of the [deceased], for damages in this type of action are not recoverable to compensate the [family] of the deceased from a monetary standpoint on account of his death, nor to compensate the plaintiffs for any financial or pecuniary loss sustained by the family of the deceased on account of his death.
Id. at 943. As the Alabama Supreme Court explained, this restricted approach “rests upon the Divine concept that all human life is precious.” Id. at 942.
Alabama’s adoption of the legislative premise, whether “Divine” or otherwise, “that all human life is precious” is laudable, but the state’s unique wrongful death statute does not necessarily operate to advance the goal of valuing all human life equally. First, it simply does not treat each case identically, as different juries will award different amounts to wrongful-death plaintiffs in different cases (based upon the reprehensibility of the wrongdoer’s action). Second, by taking a purely punitive stance, the civil action essentially duplicates the purpose of any companion criminal action. Third, and related to the second point, it is not obvious that a strictly punitive civil arrangement operates as a greater deterrent on actions resulting in wrongful deaths than the more common, compensatory schemes of other states. Fourth, and related to the third point, the practical effect of this statute is that it is more difficult for wrongful-death plaintiffs to collect in Alabama than it would be if their deceased relative died in a different state, because they must convince a jury of the (degree of) wrongfulness of the defendant’s actions that caused the decedent’s death instead of focusing on the value of the life lost, which can be challenging when the act that caused the death looks more like mere negligence than intentional homicide. Indeed, and fifth, the result of Alabama’s approach is that the wrongdoer effectively is allowed to determine the value of the life lost; whatever label the state applies to the variety of damages recoverable, it seems likely that plaintiffs in Alabama will, for all practical purposes, view whatever they recover in a wrongful death action to represent a measure of what they wrongfully lost.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with enacting idealistic or aspirational legislation. Such pronouncements can serve practical purposes, and a document like the Declaration of Independence would seem to serve as a good example. Legislatures must take care, though, that the immediate practical effects do not serve to undermine, in actual effect, the principled stance taken. When that happens, one rightly wonders about the government’s true aim. Is Alabama’s goal to treat “all human life [as] precious,” or is it simply to make the legal landscape less hospitable to wrongful death plaintiffs and their attorneys?