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High-low settlement cancels $36M Ga. verdict, but plaintiffs can relitigate pain and suffering claims

By Erianne Leatherman | Jul 10, 2018

ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) – The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that damages sought in a wrongful death lawsuit against Toyota Motor Co. are limited by a rule against double recovery.

According to the June 18 filing, the court ruled that damages recovered in the personal injury lawsuit "cannot be recovered again in a wrongful death suit."

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and centers on a 1992 car accident that left Delia Bibbs with a head injury that caused her to be in a coma for more than two decades before her death.

Following the initial accident, Bibbs’ husband filed a personal injury lawsuit against Toyota on her behalf, citing that Bibbs’ Toyota YR2 van had a defective seat belt latch and door lock that led to her being severely injured in the crash. 

The two sides agreed to a “high-low settlement" that provided some money to Bibbs in the event of a defense verdict but also limited Toyota's liability if the jury ruled for the plaintiff.

The jury awarded Bibbs more than $400,000 for previous medical expenses, $6 million for future life care expenses, and $30 million for past and future pain and suffering, according to the opinion. 

Toyota paid out the settlement and in its settlement papers expressly denied any liability’ for the accident. Bibbs released Toyota from all related “claims” and “damages" and “expressly excluded from the release was ‘any claim for Delia Bibbs’ wrongful death, inasmuch as Delia Bibbs has not died and no such claim was made or could have been made in the [personal injury lawsuit],’” the Supreme Court opinion states.

After Bibbs died in 2014, her husband and children brought about the wrongful death suit and sought damages “for the full value of her life,” according to the opinion. At that time, the district court was unsure of how much the previous settlement limited the amount recoverable in the wrongful death suit and asked two questions of the Supreme Court. 

The first question, according to the opinion, was, "Under Georgia law, are the damages that may be recovered in a wrongful death action brought by survivors of a decedent limited by a settlement entered into by the decedent’s guardian in a previous personal injury suit settling all claims that were or could have been asserted in that suit?"

The second question asked of the court was if the answer to the first question was yes, "What components of wrongful death damages are barred?”

The court ruled that economic damages could not be recovered again in this case, but non-economic damages could be possible.

"With respect to non-economic damages, on the other hand, we cannot say as a matter of law that there is no difference in value between living in a permanent coma and not living at all, even from the decedent's perspective. Put simply, we cannot say that Bibbs' life in a coma had zero monetary value," the opinion stated.

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Georgia Supreme Court U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia

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