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Sunday, 15 April 2018 00:00

Amount of Damages under New Jersey’s Wrongful Death Act May Be Expanding

Written by Jonathan Druckman

The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee voted this past Thursday along party lines (6-4) in favor of recommending the passage of bill S-1766.

The bill was sponsored and introduced last February by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the Judiciary Committee Chairman. Now that the committee has recommended passage of this law it will go to the full senate for a vote. The bill expands the wrongful death act and would allow recovery for: emotional pain and suffering, loss of companionship, mental anguish and loss of society. The bill must pass both houses of the NJ Legislature and then be signed by the governor before becoming law.

The current law in New Jersey only allows awards for damages relating to economic loss. This restriction on damages is especially unjust for the surviving family members when there is no financial loss such as the death of a small child.
While there was no oral testimony on this bill, written statements were required by both the bill supporters and opponents.

Groups that support the bill included, the New Jersey Association for Justice, which urged for passage of the bill with NJAJ President Eric Kahn stating that: “What is the life of a child, a stay-at-home spouse or an elderly person wrongfully killed by the actions or negligence of another worth?”. “In the State of New Jersey the answer is zero. This is not fair. This is not just. It is wrong.” “New Jersey’s Wrongful Death Act is an antiquated effort to value the life of a decedent solely in terms of pecuniary or economic loss. This statutory scheme has been the subject of public and judicial criticism for many years,” said Kahn, of Springfield’s Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins. “The current law limits the value of our citizens to their economic earning capacity when they die, due to the neglect, fault or abuse of a civil wrongdoer,” Kahn said. “In simple terms, that means that the lives of those with little or no income or earning capacity are worth less than people who are employed.”

Groups that opposed the bill included a variety of insurance companies as well as groups connected to the insurance industry. The bill’s opponents state that the existing act provides compensation for all aspects of loss.

A tort-reform group, the New Jersey Civil Justice Institute, opposed the bill issuing this statement from the institute’s president and chief counsel, Alida Kass.: “The existing [act] works well and already provides for fair and predictable compensation. Changing the scope of wrongful death remedies to include purely emotional damages, like mental anguish and pain and suffering, would introduce considerable uncertainty, making cases more difficult to settle, and imposing significant new risk and increased insurance premiums on all New Jersey residents,”. “[T]he existing methodology also ensures clarity and certainty—the approach is well-established and honed through years of developing case law,” Kass said. “And by taking the purely emotional aspects out of the calculation, the methodology permits the ready valuation of cases, which is essential to reaching settlements. “Changing the rules to permit awards for what is essentially unquantifiable would undo that fairness and predictability,” she said.

It should be noted that back in 2008, a similar bill died, even though the bill narrowly passed the Legislature, because Gov. Jon Corzine (Democrat) did not take any action on the bill before the legislative session ended.

As an attorney who has represented the families of relatives, killed due to the negligence of another, I can personally attest to how unfair the current law is. Under the current law a married banker with significant income, who is killed in a car crash is worth much more than an unemployed housewife who is killed in the same crash. Hopefully, this new law will rectify this injustice.

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