Alabama'’s Unique Death Action

All fifty states have statutes providing a civil action to recover money damages if a person is wrongfully killed due to the negligence or wantonness of another. However, Alabama’'s wrongful death statute is unique. You cannot recover compensatory damages in a death case in Alabama, as you can in all other states. Compensatory damages that cannot be recovered in an Alabama death case include loss of the love and affection of a family member, loss of the deceased person’s earnings, loss of his or her services, etc. Not only can you not recover these damages, you cannot even talk to the jury about the losses that come when a close family member, often the breadwinner, is killed. A plaintiff’s lawyer in a death case in Alabama can really say very little about the deceased family member. The only damages that can be recovered in a death case in Alabama are punitive damages. Although the IRS has recognized that the damages really serve compensatory purposes and do not tax them as punitive damages, I still cannot tell the jury they are to be awarded for any reason other than punishment. That often leads to a very awkward situation when the decedent’s family is looking for compensation and is really not trying to punish the defendant. The availability of punitive damages is appropriate and very important in the situation where a pharmaceutical company has placed a drug on the market without reasonable testing or has failed to recall the drug when reports of injuries and deaths from the drug start coming in. Similarly, when a drugged or intoxicated truck driver crosses the median and plows into a family on vacation, punitive damages are more than appropriate. But in many other types of death cases, it would help if we could at least tell the jury that the punitive damages do have a compensatory aspect to them — that they aren’t just to punish.