High Court Declines to Rule on Whether Survivors Can Recover for Pre-Death Fear - Rutland v. SCDOT


November 20, 2012

As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I often have the grave but important privilege of telling families how they can recover financial compensation for the death of a loved one. The injuries that you can recover money for vary from state to state, but typically include the lost person's care, companionship and love; and his or her income. In many states, including Pennsylvania, families may also recover money for the pain and suffering of the lost person, if the person was not killed instantly. In Rutland v. South Carolina Department of Transportation, the issue was whether South Carolina does or should recognize pre-impact fear as a compensable injury. The case was brought by Clarence Rutland, who lost his wife, Tiffanie Rutland, in a car crash. The state's high court ultimately declined to rule on whether her pre-death fear should be compensable, saying not enough evidence was presented to show conscious pain and suffering.

The Rutlands were in the backseat of a car driven by Joseph Bishop; their infant son was also in the car. Bishop hit a patch of water on the roadway and his Chevy Blazer flipped. Clarence Rutland was entirely thrown from the vehicle and Tiffanie Rutland was partly ejected. When Clarence was able to get back to the vehicle, he found Tiffanie's head hanging out of the window; she was cold and unresponsive, but a bystander said she had a pulse. After settling with Bishop's insurance company, Clarence sued the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) for negligent maintenance of the highway and General Motors for defective design of the window. His settlement with GM and verdict after trial against SCDOT included compensation for Tiffanie's pain and suffering, but SCDOT objected, saying there was no evidence to support her pain and suffering. The trial judge agreed and reduced the judgment to nearly zero. On appeal, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed, saying South Carolina does not recognize pre-impact fear as an injury.

Clarence again appealed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed, but on different grounds. The question of whether the state should recognize pre-impact fear as a cognizable element of damages is novel, the court said. However, it found no need to consider the issue, because it found no evidence presented of Tiffanie Rutland's conscious pain and suffering before or after the accident. At trial and on appeal, Clarence Rutland offered only a discussion of his own fear prior to the crash, using that to speculate that Tiffanie must have felt the same fear. But according to the high court, the crash took place quickly and the evidence suggests that Tiffanie died instantly, giving her no time to think about the situation. Thus, regardless of whether South Carolina recognizes pre-crash fear, the court said, not enough evidence supports such an award in this case. As a result, the high court went on, Clarence's claim that the judgment should not have been reduced also fails. A dissent argued that the reduction was inequitable to the defendants because SCDOT will pay nothing.

That dissent interests me as a Philadelphia accident lawyer, because it notes that Clarence may not have had a chance to present evidence of Tiffanie's pre-impact fear. His suit was for wrongful death, and South Carolina requires a separate survival action to recover for the deceased person's own damages. This situation also exists in Pennsylvania, where families can recover for pain and suffering through a survival action that benefits the estate of the deceased. The difference between the two can be tricky, especially for families already suffering from grief and shock, which is why it's vital to talk to a Philadelphia personal injury lawyer as soon as you think you might be interested in suing the party at fault for the accident.

If your family has suffered a wrongful death or a serious injury because of someone else's carelessness, Rosenbaum & Associates can help. For a free, confidential consultation, send us a message through our website or call 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 today.

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