Apparently losing an 11 year old girl is worth nothing

How much would a reasonable jury award for the wrongful death of an 11 year old girl?

 Apparently in Polk County, Iowa, the proper measure of damages is medical expenses plus interest on burial.

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed a Polk County judge’s denial of a new trial in Phelan-Ruden v. Suddreth. In the case, an 11 year old girl died in a skiing accident. The jury found the defendants 100% liable for the child’s death (I’m not sure what the cause of action was exactly…. failure to properly supervise maybe?) but awarded only $2,433.95 in medical expenses and $10,545 in interest on burial costs. That’s it. Nothing else.

In Iowa, the measure of damages for the death of a child is the present value of the minor’s estate – which the jury instructions define as “The present value of additional amounts the minor would reasonably be expected to have accumulated as a result of her own effort from the date she would have reached age eighteen until she had lived out the terms of her life” Iowa Jury Instruction 200.27. The parents are also allowed to recover for the value of lost services/companionship the parents would have received between the child’s death and when the child turned 18, minus the expenses of raising the child.

In this new case, the jury apparently found that the cost of raising the child outweighed any benefit the parents would have gotten from the child’s life. Does anyone believe that? Would any decent parent, after having lost their 11 year old daughter say “Man am I glad I won’t have to spend so much to raise that kid. This is great! Think of all the money I’m saving! What a good trade-off.” Of course not!

The jury also bought into the argument that the child wouldn’t accumulate any money over the course of her life… the opinion makes it look like the defense’s argument was essentially “Look at the child’s family. They never amounted to anything, so the child wouldn’t have either.” That’s a callous, ballsy argument to make to a jury, and I think much of the time the argument would backfire.

The jury essentially determined that, as the court put it, “the value of any lost services – economic, emotional or otherwise – did not exceed the cost to raise Jessica to adulthood.” Wow. Were there any parents on that jury?

I’m surprised. I can’t say that this was wrong, as I haven’t seen or heard all of the evidence. This is really just a knee-jerk reaction to the case. I’m also pretty surprised that the Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision not to grant a new trial. One appellate judge, Judge Baker, dissented, and I think rightfully so.

Interestingly enough, the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of a new trial in this case in February where a woman suffered some damages, the defendant admitted fault, and the jury did not award any damages. Isn’t that a similar situation?

My thinking is that the difference in the two opinions probably stems from the “abuse of discretion” standard used in reviewing a trial judge’s decision to grant/deny a new trial. For those non-lawyers, the abuse of discretion standard essentially means “a standard of review that allows trial courts to make whatever mistakes they like,” according to the Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.

Oh well. Like I said, there’s probably something I’m missing… and the Court of Appeals probably did the right thing. I’m just surprised that a jury of 12 people in Des Moines decided that this award would do justice to a family who lost an 11 year old girl.


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Filed under Iowa Case Law, Juries, Wrongful Death

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