§23.9 Impact of Death of Plaintiff After Verdict
The Case: Duran v. Hyundai Motor America, Inc. , 271 S.W.3d 178 (Tenn. App. 2008).
The Basic Facts: Plaintiff was injured in a fire in her home. The jury determined the origin of fire was a car manufactured by defendants. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff. Plaintiff died four months after trial, and defendants sought review of a damages award because it was based on evidence of plaintiff's life expectancy at trial that was much longer than four months.
The Bottom Line:
- "While Ms. Cook's death is undisputed, the Hyundai defendants' purpose in presenting this fact for consideration is not 'unrelated to the merits.' To the contrary, they are essentially asking this court for a retrial on damages based on the fact, only known post-judgment, that Ms. Cook did not reach her estimated life-expectancy. This is simply not the intended purpose of Tenn. R. App. P. 14. Duncan v. Duncan, 672 S.W.2d 765, 767-68 (Tenn. 1984) (holding that Tenn. R. App. P. 14 cannot be used to relitigate an issue at the appellate level based on facts occurring after the entry of the judgment)." 271 S.W.3d at 213.
- "Over one hundred years ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a tort claim was converted into a debt as the result of a judgment and that this debt was simply suspended, not vacated, when the judgment is appealed. Heald v. Wallace, 109 Tenn. 346, 351, 71 S.W. 80, 81 (1902). The death of the judgment creditor does not extinguish the debt. Accordingly, courts in other jurisdictions that have confronted this issue have held that the plaintiff's death after the entry of the judgment should have no effect on the judgment on appeal. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has explained:
To hold that a plaintiff's death following a jury verdict is the sort of 'substantial injustice' requiring the reopening of cases or award of new trials ... would be to invite a morass of appeals from defendants in cases where the plaintiffs did not survive an 'acceptable' amount of time following the entry of final judgment. Conversely, such a rule would require reopening cases where a plaintiff's life span exceeded the expectation presented to the jury....Davis v. Jellico Cmty. Hosp., Inc., 912 F.2d 129, 135 (6th Cir.1990). The court also noted that '[t]he fact that a plaintiff dies even a second after judgment is entered does not render evidence regarding an expected life span 'false' nor the judgment invalid. The testimony regards an expectancy, not a certainty.' Davis v. Jellico Cmty. Hosp., Inc., 912 F.2d at 136." Id. at 213-14.
Moreover, we wonder what standard the defendants would have us create. Is a year too short or too long a time to require a plaintiff's post-judgment survival? Six months? Three months? Would verdicts in exposure cases be reopened because of newly-developed cures for asbestosis or DES-related maladies? Any judicial rule establishing contingencies on the enjoyment of damage awards would necessarily be arbitrary.
- "Similarly, the Louisiana Court of Appeals has explained that '[t]he trial court's award of damages for personal injuries is based upon the evidence before it, including the life expectancy of the injured person; in making such award, the trier of fact necessarily takes into consideration that the injured person, despite the general life expectancy of persons of his group, may himself live far shorter than such general life expectancy.' LeBlanc v. Metal Locking of La., Inc., 258 So.2d 683, 686 (La. Ct. App. 1972). Accordingly, we decline to accept the Hyundai defendants' invitation to adopt a rule that allows a plaintiff's living a period shorter than or longer than an anticipated life expectancy to provide a basis for re-visiting an otherwise valid award for compensatory damages." Id. at 214.