Wrongful Death Jury Verdict Against the Deceased Remanded for New Trial

When a case goes to trial for personal injury in Georgia, the jury may be required to make several complicated determinations.  A jury may be asked to weigh if the injured or deceased party was less than 50% negligent, and if the injured was comparatively negligent, how much damage to award the injured or deceased party with the percentage of comparative liability removed.  A federal opinion from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal reviewed a jury’s award and District Court judge’s judgment as a matter of law in favor of the defendants.  The jury found the deceased to be 99% negligent and awarded no damages.  The judge also granted a Judgment as a Matter of Law in favor of the defendants, asserting the estate of the deceased did not present a case with legally sufficient evidence where a reasonable jury could find for him on a material element of causation.  The Court of Appeals reversed on all issues and remanded the case for a new trial.

In this case the gentleman died as a result of his injuries from an apparent fall off of rocky promontory named “the Point”.  The deceased was staying on privately owned land as part of his membership of a private golf club.  He was taking pictures of the sunset with his friends at a location near the Point, and went off alone.  When it was discovered he was missing two to ten minutes later, a search was conducted, but ultimately unsuccessful.  His body was found the next day in the water two and a half miles from the Club.  His cause of death was listed as “polytrauma with intracranial hemorrhage and fracture of ribs/injury upper and lower extremities”.  His estate brought suit, alleging that the defendants were negligent by failing to maintain the property near the Point, failing to provide adequate warnings about the dangerous conditions of the Point, and failing to keep guests and residents from accessing the Point.  It was not disputed that while the Point was not property of the Club, it was only accessible through Club property.

sailing trailThe deceased had a urine alcohol concentration of .22, which is a different measurement than blood alcohol concentration.  The deceased’s estate presented their case, including damages of lost wages and loss of support to his children.  The jury struggled and sent notes to the judge, first indicating they could not come to a 100% agreement, and then asking if an award to the plaintiff’s estate of $0.00 was possible with a finding of negligence.  After the verdict, the deceased’s estate filed for a new trial, arguing the verdict was an impermissible compromise, the toxicology report should not have been included in the evidence, and that there was an issue with the jury instruction discussing the deceased’s status as an invitee.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals determined that the Club had a duty to protect their invitees against the dangers of the Point, which was only accessible through club property and a known hazard.  The Court of Appeals found the jury instructions regarding the deceased’s status to be lacking, and determined that it failed to explain the defendants’ duties toward the deceased.  The toxicology results were ultimately determined to be admissible, but the jury verdict was found to be a compromise verdict not allowed by law.  The Court of Appeals also looked at the defendant’s lack of evidence regarding damages and the instruction to the jury to determine the loss to the estate – which was to be made without any adjustment for comparative fault.  The notes to the judge from the jury indicated a compromise where some might have only gone along with a finding of liability if there was a finding of zero damages.  Because of all of these things, the Court of Appeals ruled that the deceased’s estate was entitled to a new trial on both liability and damages.

The Georgia wrongful death attorneys at Angell Law Firm have the experience you need when litigating the wrongful death of a family member.  Call today to speak with one of our experienced attorneys for a confidential consultation at (770) 217-4954.

More Blog Posts:

11th Circuit Court of Appeals Issues Decision Reinforces Protection for the Injured, Atlanta Accident Attorney Blog, February 5th, 2014

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety Publishes 2014 Roadmap of State Highways and Safety Laws, Atlanta Accident Attorney Blog, January 29th, 2014