In actions for wrongful death, causation is not always so simple that a single person or legal entity can be identified as the sole defendant responsible for the decedent's death. For example, if a person dies in a car accident, it may be partly because of the fault of another driver and partly due to a mechanical defect on one of the vehicles that may be the responsibility of the auto manufacturer. A lawsuit would name both of these as defendants. Assuming that the plaintiff prevails, how are the damages to be divided among them?
Until 2005, Georgia followed a doctrine known as joint and several liability, under which all defendants were liable for all of the damages even if none of them was 100% at fault. In the example above, if the other deceased was not negligent, the other driver was 70 percent at fault and the auto maker was 30 percent at fault, the old doctrine would have let the plaintiff collect 100 percent of the damages award from either the other driver, or the auto maker, or some combination of both of them. Changes to the law, however, have made joint and several liability obsolete in Georgia.
Now, in the above example with the negligent driver and auto maker, let's assume the following:
First, the jury decides if the deceased person who is the subject of the wrongful death action was 20 percent at fault. This will reduce the damages award by an equal amount.
Second, assume that the jury finds the other driver 30 percent at fault, and the auto maker 50 percent (together comprising the 80 percent of damages after the deduction of the 20 percent of the decedent's fault). Under the law as it exists today, each of the two defendants would be liable for only its percent of responsibility. It is no longer possible to collect the entire 80 percent from just one of them.
Staying abreast of the most recent legal developments, including legislative changes and decisions of both state and federal courts, is part of the responsibility of every personal injury law firm in Georgia. Only in this way can you be assured that your lawsuit will not run afoul of technical problems based on inaccurate understanding of how the law applies to your specific case.