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Georgia Supreme Court Holds Family May Seek Limited Damages for Wrongful Death of Woman After 20-Year Coma

A wrongful death lawsuit is a special kind of personal injury claim. Unlike other torts, however, wrongful death is purely a creation of state law. Historically, if a negligent act killed the victim, the personal injury claim died with them. Under Georgia’s wrongful death statute, however, the victim’s surviving spouse or children may bring their own claim against the negligent parties.

Bibbs v. Toyota Motor Corporation

Generally speaking, you cannot recover twice for the same injury. In other words, if a victim initially survives an accident and successfully pursues a personal injury claim, the family cannot seek additional damages via a wrongful death lawsuit if the victim subsequently dies. The wrongful death statute is only designed to ensure the victim’s family recovers the same damages she could have recovered herself had she survived.

This brings us to a recent decision by the Georgia Supreme Court. A federal judge asked the state court to clarify the application of the wrongful death law’s bar on double recovery to a unique and tragic case. (Federal courts often make such requests when state law is unclear.)

The events leading to this particular decision occurred over 25 years ago. In September 1992, a young woman sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. In fact, the injury was so severe that it left her in a coma for the next 20 years.

The victim’s husband, acting as her legal guardian, filed a product liability lawsuit against Toyota, which manufactured his wife’s car. Essentially, the lawsuit alleged that defects in the van’s seat-belt latch and door locks caused the victim’s injuries. Following a jury trial, the husband and Toyota agreed to a settlement, which released the manufacturer from any “claims” or “damages” arising from the accident, excluding any potential wrongful death claims.

As the victim was still alive at this point, there was no wrongful death claim to settle. After the victim finally passed away two decades later–having never regained consciousness–the husband and the couple’s children did file a wrongful death lawsuit against Toyota. The company moved for summary judgment in federal court, arguing the original personal injury settlement “effectively precluded” the wrongful death plaintiffs from recovering any damages (aside from the victim’s funeral expenses), as that would amount to double recovery.

The Georgia Supreme Court largely agreed with Toyota’s reading of the law. “Having fully settled her personal injury lawsuit,” the Court said, the victim “is presumed to have recovered the damages she was entitled to receive at that time as a result of her catastrophic personal injury.” The settlement “fully compensated” her for the fact that she was “totally disabled” for the remainder of her life. The family therefore could not now seek additional damages for these injuries.

That said, the Supreme Court also held that the settlement did not apply to non-economic damages–i.e., pain and suffering–arising from the victim’s “life in a coma.” In theory, a jury could find that a “patient in a permanent compa might still retain some vestiges of consciousness later or inner life.” The justices left it to the federal trial court to determine whether that was the case here.