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Bibbs v. Toyota Motor Corp.

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 18, 2018

BIBBS et al.

          Blackwell, Justice.

         In this wrongful death lawsuit, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia has certified two questions to this Court:

Under Georgia law, are the damages that may be recovered in a wrongful death action brought by survivors of a decedent limited by a settlement entered into by the decedent's guardian in a previous personal injury suit settling all claims that were or could have been asserted in that suit?
If the answer is yes, what components of wrongful death damages are barred?

         We answer the first question in the affirmative, and in response to the second question, we explain that damages recovered or recoverable in an earlier personal injury lawsuit cannot be recovered again in a wrongful death suit. In many instances, this rule against double recoveries will not significantly limit the damages that may be recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit, but in the circumstances of this case, we acknowledge that the limitation is substantial.

         1. In September 1992, Delia Bibbs was involved in a car accident in which she sustained a head injury that left her in a coma. A few months after the accident, she filed - through her husband, who then was acting as her legal guardian - a personal injury lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. In that lawsuit, Bibbs alleged that her 1986 Toyota YR2 van had a defective seatbelt latch and door-locking mechanism, and she asserted that these defects caused her injuries. The case was tried by a jury, but before it returned a verdict, Bibbs and Toyota entered into a "high-low" settlement agreement, which guaranteed some recovery for Bibbs in the event of a verdict for Toyota, but limited Toyota's exposure in the event of a verdict for Bibbs. The jury returned a verdict for Bibbs, awarding substantial damages, including more than $400, 000 for past medical expenses, $6 million for future life care expenses, and $30 million for past and future pain and suffering.

         Within the next month, Toyota paid the amount required under the settlement agreement, and Bibbs (through her husband) executed a written release that incorporated the settlement agreement. In the settlement papers, Toyota "expressly den[ied] any liability" for the accident, and with one exception, Bibbs broadly released Toyota from all "claims" and "damages" arising from the accident. Expressly excluded from the release was "any claim for Delia Bibbs' wrongful death, inasmuch as Delia Bibbs has not died and no such claim was made or could have been made in the [personal injury lawsuit]." Also in connection with the settlement, Bibbs dismissed her personal injury lawsuit with prejudice. Throughout the course of that suit and at the time of the settlement, Bibbs's husband was aware that her coma was permanent and that she was totally and permanently disabled.

         More than 20 years later, Bibbs died, never having awakened from her coma. Together with her surviving children, Bibbs's husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Toyota, seeking damages for the full value of her life. The case was removed to federal district court, and Toyota filed a motion for partial summary judgment. In relevant part, Toyota argued that the release in the personal injury suit effectively precluded the plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit from recovering any damages beyond funeral expenses. In its initial ruling, the district court agreed for the most part with Toyota. Because Bibbs was totally and permanently disabled at the time of her personal injury lawsuit, the district court reasoned, the economic value of her life - the money that she might have earned but for the accident - was recoverable in the personal injury suit and could not be recovered again in wrongful death. And although the plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit properly could seek to recover damages for the intangible, non-economic value of her life, that value would have to be measured from her perspective at the time of her death, when she already had been in a coma for more than 20 years.[1] The plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration, which the district court granted in part and denied in part. On reconsideration, the district court noted its uncertainty under Georgia law about the extent to which the settlement of the earlier personal injury lawsuit limited the damages recoverable in this wrongful death suit, and it certified to this Court the two questions that we recited earlier.[2]

         2. In Georgia, wrongful death claims are authorized by OCGA § 51-4-2 (a), which provides that a surviving spouse or child "may recover for the homicide of the spouse or parent the full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence." In one form or another, this provision has been a part of our law for nearly 170 years. See Engle v. Finch, 165 Ga. 131, 132 (139 SE 868) (1927). At common law, "no recovery could be had for an injury resulting in death, because the right of action died with the person. So a widow or child could not recover for the homicide of the husband or parent, and the husband could not recover for the homicide of his wife." Id. See also Shields v. Yonge, 15 Ga. 349, 350 (1854) (at common law, "the death of a human being could not be complained of as an injury"). To ameliorate the harshness and inequity of the common law, the English Parliament adopted Lord Campbell's Act in 1846, which authorized the legal representative of a decedent to recover damages for wrongful injury to the decedent that the decedent could have recovered himself "if death had not ensued." See Thompson v. Watson, 186 Ga. 396, 397 (197 SE 774) (1938), disapproved on other grounds in Walden v. Coleman, 217 Ga. 599 (124 S.E.2d 265) (1962).[3] Several American jurisdictions followed suit, adopting statutes modeled after Lord Campbell's Act. Georgia was among these. See id.

         In 1850, the General Assembly adopted our first wrongful death statute, which provided:

[I]n all cases hereafter where death shall ensue from or under circumstances which would entitle the deceased, if death had not ensued, to an action against the perpetrator of the injury, the legal representative of such deceased shall be entitled to have and maintain an action at Law against the person committing the act from which the death has resulted - one half of the recovery to be paid to the wife and children, or the husband of the deceased, if any, in case of his or her estate being insolvent.

1851 Cobb's Digest at 476, § 83. See also Thompson, 186 Ga. at 397-98. Six years later, the General Assembly enacted another wrongful death statute, which applied to railroads:

[I]f any one shall be killed by the carelessness, negligence or improper conduct of any of said rail-road companies, their officers, agents or employees, by the running of the cars or engines of any of said companies, . . . the right of action to recover damages, shall vest in his widow, if any; if no widow, it shall vest in his children, if any; and if no child or children, it shall vest in his legal representatives.

1859 Cobb's Compilation at 526; Thompson, 186 Ga. at 398. See also SouthWestern R. Co. v. Paulk, 24 Ga. 356, 364-365 (1858) (discussing the relationship between the 1850 Act and the 1856 Act). When Georgia law was codified in 1861, these statutes were blended to form a new provision:

A widow, or if no widow a child or children, may recover for the homicide of the husband or parent; and if suit be brought by the widow or children, and the former or one of the latter dies pending the action, the same shall survive in the first case to the children, and in the latter case to the surviving child or children.

Ga. Code of 1861, p. 543, § 2913; Thompson, 186 Ga. at 398.[4] This code section was amended again in 1878 to add a provision fixing the measure of damages: "The plaintiff, whether widow or child or children, may recover the full value of the life of the deceased, as shown by the evidence." Thompson, 186 Ga. at 398 (emphasis supplied) (quoting Ga. L. 1878-1879, p. 59). That provision has survived essentially unchanged to this day.[5]

         In the decades that followed the original codification of the wrongful death statute, this Court struggled with the application of the proper measure ...

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