Wrongful death actions are emotional and complex legal cases that aim to provide compensation to the surviving family members for the loss of their loved one. Compensation generally comes in the form of economic damages (medical expenses, loss of financial support, and similar) and noneconomic damages (mental anguish, pain and emotional distress, loss of companionship, etc.) suffered by the surviving family members. In cases involving the death of a loved one, it is difficult to prove and quantify noneconomic damages, but that is exactly what the parties and ultimately the jury must do.
Recently, the Texas Supreme Court re-confirmed that awarding noneconomic damages is, and must remain, a rational and non-arbitrary process. To protect against irrational and arbitrary awards, plaintiffs in Texas bear the burden of proving “both (1) the existence of compensable mental anguish or loss of companionship and (2) a rational connection, grounded in the evidence, between the injury suffered and the amount awarded.” This standard does not require precise quantification of noneconomic damages, but it does require that the amount awarded has “a rational basis grounded in the evidence.”
Applying this standard, in the Chohan case, the Court found that testimony concerning the familial relationships and ways in which the surviving family members’ lives were affected by the death was sufficient evidence to establish that the family had suffered compensable mental anguish and loss of companionship. However, the Court also found that such evidence on its own did not indicate the amount of damages incurred as a result of that suffering.
The Court further found that “unsubstantiated anchoring,” that is the suggestion of damage amounts by reference to objects or values with no rational connection to the facts of the case, is insufficient to justify the amount awarded in compensatory damages. Examples of unsubstantiated anchoring include analogies based on the cost of a Boeing F-18 fighter jet, the cost of a coveted painting, and the number of miles driven by a defendant trucking company during the year in which the death occurred.
The Court also rejected the idea of requiring consideration of the ratio between economic and noneconomic damages in the context of wrongful death cases. However, the Court did not reject “the possibility that economic and noneconomic damages may correlate or inform one another in certain circumstances…”
The Court also confirmed that evidence of the “nature, duration, and severity” of noneconomic damages suffered is relevant to justifying the amount awarded and suggested that direct evidence such as “the likely financial consequences of severe emotional disruption in the plaintiff’s life” or “that some amount of money would enable the plaintiff to better deal with grief or restore his emotional health” might be used to support the quantification of noneconomic damages.
While it is unclear, at this point, exactly what evidence will be sufficient to “justify the amount awarded” in the context of noneconomic damages, it is clear that, “it is not enough for the plaintiff or his attorney merely to assert, without rational explanation, that a given amount or a given range is reasonable and just.”
Gregory v. Chohan, No. 21-0017, 2023 Tex. Lexis 528 (Tex. June 16, 2023).