Damages in RI Wrongful Death Cases With Multiple Defendants

Car Accident

Wrongful Death Cases Require a $250,000 Minimum in Rhode Island

How much can the surviving beneficiaries of a person who dies from wrongful acts expect to receive at trial?  Rhode Island law requires a $250,000 minimum recovery for successful wrongful death claimants.  The Wrongful Death statute at R.I. Gen. Laws Section 10-7-2, provides: “Whenever any person or corporation is found liable [for a wrongful death claim] he or she or it shall be liable in damages in the sum of not less than two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000).”  By statute, half of the recovery goes to the spouse and half to the children.  When there are no children, recovery goes to the spouse. When there is no spouse, recovery goes to the next of kin. The legislature enacted this statute to compensate losses suffered by widows and children who were dependent on the decedent.

In practice, the minimum recovery provision works as follows: let’s say the estate brings wrongful death claims, goes to trial, and wins a verdict awarding $50,000 in damages.  The estate can then file a motion for additur to bring the verdict up to $250,000.  Of course, in many cases, wrongful death awards exceed $250,000 in which case additional amounts recovered would also be split among the beneficiaries.

Damages are Per Claim, Not Per Defendant

Beneficiaries need to be aware that if they settle with one of multiple defendants before trial against another defendant, the settlement amount will count toward the $250,000 minimum.  Despite the plain language of the Wrongful Death Statute stating that any person or corporation found liable will be responsible for $250,000, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that the minimum is “per claim” not “per defendant.”  So the estate will only be entitled the $250,000 minimum once, no matter how many defendants are liable.  O’Connell v. Walmsley, KC-05-161 (R.I. Supreme Court March 27, 2017).

O’Connell involved a tragic accident that followed two cars high-speed racing on a Connecticut turnpike.  The estate of passenger and decedent O’Connell settled with the drivers of the two racing vehicles for $395,000.  The estate then went to trial against the driver of a third vehicle not involved in the race, but that had collided with O’Connell’s car after it veered into oncoming traffic.   The jury found the oncoming driver only 3% liable, for $10,000.

In refusing to require the oncoming driver to pay the $250,000 wrongful death minimum, the Court rejected a strict reading of the statute’s plain language, because such an interpretation would yield an “absurd result.”  The Court also attempted to construe the Wrongful Death Statute in harmony with R.I. Gen. Laws Section 10-6-7, the Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors statute.  This legislation provides that if an injured person releases one joint tortfeasor, for example, the injured person settles with one of multiple joint tortfeasor defendants, the release reduces the claim against other tortfeasors in the amount paid by the released defendant.  The estate’s lawyers in O’Connell speculated this to be a “results-oriented” decision because  the defendant would have had to pay $250,000 for a $10,000 verdict.

Either way, O’Connell must be heeded as a warning that the minimum recovery statute is not implemented as it reads.  It is now per claim, not per defendant.

Bottaro Law and Wrongful Death Claims

The attorneys at the Bottaro Law Firm handle wrongful death cases on behalf of our clients on a daily basis.  Wrongful death claims may result from tragic auto accidents, motorcycle accidents, nursing home abuse, medical malpractice, or defective products. We have brought numerous such cases to successful resolution.  Contact Mike today to discuss your potential claim free of charge.