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Calculating the Loss of Income to a Family or Survivors Resulting from a Wrongful Death

Filled under Damages and Compensation, Wrongful Death on January 10, 2011 - no comments.

The emotional impact caused by the death of a loved one due to the actions of others can be devastating.  Although nothing can bring back the decedent, juries can (and do) award damages for the emotional impact suffered by the loved ones left behind (see:  Types of Damages and Liability that May be Compensated  ).

In addition to compensation for the emotional impact and other personal losses, families of the decedent may also be entitled to compensation for lost wages or income that otherwise would have been earned by the decedent.  Here, I’ll describe some of the factors that judges and juries consider in determining how lost wages or income are calculated.   

The Current Job and Income of the Decedent

As a starting point, courts and juries consider the current job and income of the decedent.  For those who died who in the middle of their careers, there is often a long history of earnings and promotions upon which to estimate the wages or income that would have been earned by the decedent during their working life.  For those who died near the beginning of their working careers, there is much less of an earnings and promotions history.  Nonetheless, the starting point is to consider the current job and whatever earnings and promotion history are available.

Age and Future Expected Earnings

From this point, courts and juries must try to determine what the future career path and earnings would have been if the person had not been killed.   In some industries and occupations, future earnings can be reasonably estimated much more easily than others. 

For example, a teacher who is 50 years old will likely work for a certain number of years before reaching an age where full retirement benefits would be applicable.  The salary during these remaining working years can be reasonably estimated based on past salary increases.  Additionally, the teacher would likely receive pension benefits from starting retirement through the remainder of his or her life expectancy.  These benefits can also be reasonably estimated. 

Alternatively, future earnings are more difficult to estimate if the person is young and new to a position, such as a sales associate position.  Would this person have become a superstar sales person and gone on to become the CEO, or would they have topped out at a middle level management position? These are the types of issues that juries often have to wrestle with and decide in wrongful death cases.

In general, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, courts and juries tend to accept the most likely scenario in calculating future earnings, rather than adopt  a long-shot scenario.  Thus in a sales situation, it is much more likely that a judge or jury will find that the person would have had an average career, as opposed to deciding that the deceased person would have become a CEO.

In any event, calculating lost wages for any person is highly individualized.  It’s important, therefore, to present the court with all factors that are likely to lead a judge or jury to conclude that the decedent would have had a very productive career, in order to obtain the highest award possible. This involves considerable investigation by an experienced wrongful death attorney, and often the use of employment and psychological experts, as well as accountants and actuaries. It often takes considerable creativity and resources to prove a strong case for substantial economic losses. The Tucson, Arizona wrongful death lawyers at Bache & Lynch have experience in proving these losses and can answer your questions about this.