Wrongful Death Act: New Trial for Damages

McMichael v. McMichael, 2019 WL 1613152 (Pa. Super. 2019) (unreported), allocatur granted Oct. 22, 2019, appeal dockets 50 MAP 2019 and 51 MAP 2019.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider whether a new trial on damages is proper where a jury finds liability but awards zero dollars in damages under the Wrongful Death Act.

In August 2013, Tina McMichael (Wife) filed a complaint seeking wrongful death damages and survival damages against Peter McMichael (Peter) and P&J Construction and Landscape Nursery LLC (P&J) (collectively, Defendants) following the death of her husband, Seth McMichael (Decedent), in a tree removal accident on Defendants’ property. Wife and Decedent were married with three children when he died at the age of 51. The Decedent did the repairs around the house, mowed the lawn, 80% of the cooking, and drove Wife to work in bad weather. Without Decedent, Wife was unable to have several household items repaired and works overtime to pay the bills. The trial court entered judgment in favor of Wife but awarded her zero dollars in wrongful death damages finding that Wife failed to present sufficient evidence of the value of her economic and non-economic loss for wrongful death damages, and therefore the jury was free to disregard Wife’s testimony regarding same, and award zero dollars. Wife appealed, arguing, in relevant part:

… the jury’s award of zero dollars in wrongful death damages shocks one’s sense of justice given Wife’s credible evidence and Defendants’ failure to challenge said evidence. “It was simply impossible, absent mistake, confusion or corruption, for this jury to have concluded that [Decedent] would not have contributed a dime to his family or in any way supported the [family] from January 2013 until the date of his natural death.” Thus, Wife contends that the trial court erred in denying her motion for a new trial, and that “[t]he trial court’s rationale for upholding the jury’s award is as manifestly unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious as the award itself.”

Slip Op. at 27 (internal citations omitted). Defendants countered that the trial court did not err in denying Wife’s motion for a new trial because she failed to present sufficient evidence of the value of Decedent’s services, the nature of their relationship, or the impact of Decedent’s death on her and her life, thus zero dollars “was a reasonable response to her failure to provide the jury with evidence from which it could calculate what, if any, pecuniary loss she experienced as a result of [Decedent’s] death.” Id. at 29.

In considering whether the trial court abused  its discretion by refusing to grant a new trial limited to Wife’s wrongful death damages, Superior Court applied the test in Kiser v. Schulte, 648 A.2d 1 (Pa. 1994), which held that the grant of a new trial limited to damages is proper where (1) the damages are not “intertwined” with the issue of liability and (2) liability has been “fairly determined” or is “free of doubt.” Slip Op. at 27. Superior Court found the jury fairly determined liability and wrongful death damages were not intertwined with the liability issue and agreed that Defendants failed to challenge Wife’s testimony. Thus, Superior Court concluded that the trial court erred in refusing to grant a new trial as to damages, reasoning that:

Despite Wife’s testimony, the jury awarded Wife zero dollars in wrongful death damages. While Wife did not present specific dollar amounts for services Decedent rendered to the household, it unquestionably amounted to more than zero dollars. Instead of attempting to estimate the amount of these services, the jury completely disregarded the evidence presented on the question of wrongful death damages and settled on an inadequate amount of zero dollars. Therefore, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying Wife’ motion for a new trial as to wrongful death damages. See Carroll [v. Avallone], 939 A.2d [872 (Pa. 2007)] (stating an appellate court’s “standard of review [of a denial of a motion for a new trial] is limited to determining whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law”).

Because the issue of wrongful death damages is not intertwined with the issue of liability, and the issue of liability has been fairly determined by the jury, we reverse the judgment awarding Wife zero dollars in wrongful death damages, and remand for a new trial limited to wrongful death damages. See Kiser, 658 A.2d at 8.

Slip Op. at 30-31.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to determine:

When there is no evidence of economic losses under the Wrongful Death Act, such as medical or funeral expenses, or estate administration costs; no evidence as to the amounts that the decedent would have provided to his family over his lifetime; and no evidence as to the value of the services that the decedent would have provided to his family; and the jury did not accept as credible evidence of the spouse’s alleged non-economic loss, was the jury within its prerogative to award no damages under the Wrongful Death Act, was the trial court within its discretion in denying a new trial as to damages under that act, and did the Superior Court err in adopting a per se requirement of damages in virtually all wrongful death cases?

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.