The Effect of Inflation on Wrongful Death Verdicts

Richard J. Riley

The full article will be available to read soon in the forthcoming 43:2 issue of the American Journal of Trial Advocacy.


         The reasonableness and constitutionality of a punitive damage award in a general tort case is judged primarily by the amount of compensatory damages recovered.  Although consideration of other factors may result in variability in the amount of punitive damages ultimately allowed, the outer limit of punitive damages is gauged by a multiplier of the amount of compensatory damages recovered.  This multiplier tether keeps the amount of punitive damages proportional, foreseeable, and fair.  It also stands the test of time and continues to punish and deter tortfeasors and others in the future from engaging in wrongful conduct irrespective of market fluctuations and the effects of inflation.  This is so because, when the core components of compensatory damage (for example, medical costs, wages, property values, and others) increase over time, due to inflation or other market factors, the multiplier tether will naturally extend to allow for a proportional increase in punishment.  As such, future tortfeasors will continue to be sufficiently punished and deterred. 

         Unlike other tort cases, however, cases brought under the Alabama Wrongful Death Act, have no compensatory damages component.  Instead, only punitive damages may be recovered. As such, the tether must be, and is, different.  Although other factors can give variability, the outer limit of wrongful death damages is tethered to the amount of damages approved by the Alabama Supreme Court in previous wrongful death cases.  This makes sense in Alabama where every human life is precious and of equal worth.  “The very purpose of punitive damages . . . in a wrongful death [case] rests upon the Divine concept that all human life is precious.”  A life is a life is a life.  Because wrongful death damages are strictly punitive and tethered to damages previously approved by the supreme court in previous wrongful death cases, the need to ensure sufficient future punishment and deterrence for wrongfully causing a death is particularly important.  The Alabama Supreme Court has long held that “no arbitrary cap can be placed on the value of human life,” and “the value of human life has no measure.”  However, the wrongful death comparison tether can only stand the test of time and continue to punish and deter future tortfeasors if the effects of inflation on previously approved awards are considered in the analysis.  Otherwise, over time, this tether will remain permanently and rigidly taut and fixed in an ancient place, unfairly restricting the amount of future damages for causing a death as market factors and inflation continue moving on.  Consequently, the economic worth of a life over time will cheapen and diminish, making it more economically palatable for tortfeasors to engage in dangerous behavior as the punishment for taking a life will continue to decrease.  Not only is this scenario inconsistent with the supreme court’s longstanding pro-life interpretation of the Wrongful Death Act, it is also inconsistent with fundamental fairness and common sense, which have been the hallmarks of the supreme court’s punitive damage review procedures for decades. 

          As such, when considering motions for remittitur in wrongful death cases, Alabama courts should consider the effects of inflation on the previously approved supreme court awards serving as comparators for the subject award.  This is the only way to ensure that an arbitrary cap is never placed on the value of human life, and that the value of human life will always have no measure in Alabama.