In Hatwood v. Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, 55 A.2d 1229 (Pa. Super. 2012), the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that it was proper for the trial judge to instruct the jury that they could award monetary damages for “society and companionship” under the Wrongful Death Act to the parents of a deceased child. When the jury awarded $1.5 million for the loss of society and companionship, the Superior Court also refused to remit the award.
The Trial Court Proceedings
Hatwood involved a medical malpractice action arising out of the death of a 17-month old child due to complications from cerebral palsy. Plaintiffs alleged that improper obstetric care resulted in a hypoxic ischemic brain injury leading to cerebral palsy and the child’s death. At trial, the family of the deceased child offered testimony concerning their loss of society and companionship. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge instructed the jury as follows concerning damages recoverable under the Wrongful Death Act for society and companionship:
In addition to the monetary contributions that the decedent would have contributed to the family support, the plaintiffs are entitled to be awarded a sum that will fairly and adequately compensate the family for the monetary value of the companionship, society, and comfort that Hyseem Jacobs would have given to his family had he lived; including such elements as work around the home, provision of physical comfort and services, and provision of society and comfort.
The jury returned a $1.5 million verdict for loss of society and comfort. The defendants appealed claiming both that such damages were not recoverable under Pennsylvania law and, if they were, such a verdict shocks the conscience and should be remitted.
The Superior Court Decision
In analyzing the defendants’ argument that loss of society and companionship did not constitute permissible damages to be paid to the parents of a deceased child, the Superior Court first analyzed the language of the Wrongful Death statute, 42 Pa. C.S.A. §8301, which allows a spouse, children or parents of a deceased to sue another for a wrongful or neglectful act that has led to the death of the deceased. The court explained that previous decisions had held that the members of the decedent’s family may recover not only for medical, funeral and estate administration expenses they incur, but also for the value of the decedent’s services, including society and comfort. In fact, the definition of compensable services for the purpose of the Wrongful Death statute is similar to the definition of consortium as that term is applied in other negligence cases.
The Superior Court also noted that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had addressed the issue of claims for non-pecuniary losses such as for society and companionship under the Wrongful Death Act by holding that:
The fact that there is no mathematical formula whereby compassionately bestowed benefits can be converted into a precise number of bank notes does not mean that the tortfeasor will be excused from making suitable reimbursement for their loss . . . . All these things – such as companionship, comfort, society, guidance, solace, and protection which go into the vase of family happiness – are the things for which a wrongdoer must pay when he shatters the vase. Spangler v. Helm’s New York–Pittsburgh Motor Exp., 153 A.2d 490, 492 (Pa. 1959).
Accordingly, the Superior Court determined that the trial judge did not err in instructing the jury with regard to society and companionship. Furthermore, after reviewing the evidence, the Superior Court found that there was no basis to require the trial judge to remit the jury’s $1.5 million verdict.
The Hatwood Decision is significant in that it confirms that, under the Wrongful Death Act, parents of deceased children, even infants, have a legal basis to recover non-economic damages for their loss of society and companionship. In this writer’s opinion, the Court’s Decision was certainly appropriate because it compels the wrongdoer to pay for all of the consequences of his or her negligence, not just the economic damages like medical and funeral bills or lost wages.