Damages in a Wrongful Death Suit in Missouri

by Mary Hodges

My last blog focused on the proper party or parties in a wrongful death case. This article will discuss how damages are determined once the proper parties are in place.

There are various factors that can be considered in assessing damages depending on who the plaintiff(s) and deceased are. For instance, if the deceased is a minor child (that we can assume is unmarried) the first class [1] will be comprised of the child’s parents. On the other hand, if the deceased was married with children, class one would include the deceased’s spouse and children as well as the deceased’s parents. If there are multiple individuals in a class, how are damages shared between each plaintiff?

According to Missouri law, each plaintiff has an equal burden to present evidence that establishes their losses. Then, the duty and responsibility of apportionment of losses lies within the sound discretion of the trial court. Thus, after hearing all the evidence from each individual in the class, the trier of fact will determine the total damages. The court then will assess those damages to each individual in proportion to their losses.

At this time, there is no dollar limit on recovery in a wrongful death claim in Missouri and a jury is given extraordinarily wide discretion in assessing wrongful death damages. In assessing damages of pecuniary loss due to the deceased’s death, the jury may consider many facts, including the deceased’s health, life expectancy, talents, age, habits, character, and earning capacity. The jury may also consider funeral expenses, damages suffered by the deceased between the time of injury and death and for which the deceased might have maintained an action had death not ensued, and the reasonable value of the deceased’s consortium, services, companionship, comfort, instruction, guidance, counsel, training, and support. However, Missouri does not allow damages for grief and bereavement in a wrongful death action. Mitigating and aggravating circumstances may also be taken into consideration by the jury.

Missouri’s test of the right of recovery for claimed pecuniary loss to the plaintiff is the following: Is there a reasonable probability of economic benefit to the plaintiff from the continued life of the deceased; or, is there a pecuniary injury to the plaintiff from the decedent’s death? When a child, parent, or spouse dies factors such as the physical, emotional, and psychological relationship between the parent and the child or between spouses must be considered. Thus, an element of the total damages is based upon the relationship between the deceased and each individual party to the action. For example, in Parr v. Parr, the parents and children of the decedent were each apportioned $10,000, and the decedent’s wife was apportioned $925,000. The Missouri Supreme Court found the apportioned amounts to be adequate because appellate courts cannot interfere unless the judgment is grossly excessive or inadequate or if the circuit court acted within the discretion granted by section 537.095.

My last blog mentioned whether absent parents or parents with minimal contact with their children are entitled to bring a wrongful death action. These factors do not affect whether one is entitled to bring an action; however, it will have a bearing on the amount of damages assessed to the absent parent. For instance, in Haynes v. Bohon, Glasco v. Fire & Cas. Ins. Co., and Collins v. Herenstein, the court apportioned a 90/10 split between parents of a deceased child where one parent only saw the child occasionally and did not provide regular support. Therefore, an absent parent will generally receive a smaller award, if any, than the non-absent parent.

In sum, the relationship between each plaintiff and the deceased will have an impact on how much damages are apportioned to each plaintiff. If you have experienced the loss of a loved one due to the fault of another, contact the attorneys at Cosgrove Law Group, LLC.

[1] For more information on how to determine a wrongful death class, see my blog titled “Property Party in a Missouri Wrongful Death Action.”