In a recent case titled Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas, Inc. v. Athenahougue, the Texas Supreme Court has found another way to make it more difficult, if not impossible to recover monetary damages when your loved one is killed. Justice Wainwright wrote the opinion for the majority. The issue in the Athenahougue case was whether the plaintiffs submitted sufficient evidence to support the jury’s award of money for loss of inheritance damages. As the court has done so many times in the past, they managed to review all of the facts in this case not in favor of supporting the jury’s findings, but rather in favor of taking away a plaintiff’s award. This review of the record clearly goes against the policy making purpose of the Texas Supreme Court.
In order to recover loss of inheritance, the plaintiff must present evidence that the plaintiff would have outlived the decedent and that the decedent’s earnings less his expenses would have left an estate to inherit. Plaintiffs typically rely on expert witnesses to assist with this evidence. There is some inherent speculation built into the recovery of loss of inheritance damages, but this is something that courts have left to the discretion of the jury for nearly 100 years.
In order to prove that the plaintiff’s wife would have outlived him, they presented evidence that she was 3 years younger than her husband and that federal government life expectancy tables (relied on by experts across the country) showed her outliving her husband by nearly 7 years. As expected, the Texas Supreme Court decided this evidence was insufficient and basically added another element for plaintiffs to prove before money damages will be upheld by this court. The court threw out the award because evidence of her medical history was not presented to the jury. Had the defendant believed the plaintiff’s medical history was an issue, they clearly would have had the opportunity to cross-examine her on this issue but they chose not to.
Not only did the court find that the evidence the spouse would out live the decedent insufficient, they went on to criticize the plaintiffs’ economist expert. The plaintiffs hired Dr. Self to present to the jury evidence that but for the defendant’s negligence, and in this case gross negligence, the decedent would have most likely left an estate for the plaintiffs to inherit. To support this position, Dr. Self studied the decedent’s savings accounts, stock portfolio, equity in the marital home, and estimated future earnings based on past earnings and work expectancy tables. Not surprisingly, this was insufficient evidence according to the Texas Supreme Court. The court justified its position by saying “Some of the data Dr. Self utilized in his economic calculation came from Hogue’s past work history, earnings, and savings. However, Dr. Self’s work expectancy age of seventy years old, from which he calculated Hogue’s remaining years in the workforce, did not account for the additional factors of Hogue’s health after his operative procedure (had it been successful), post-operative recuperation time, or likely future medical expenses. Instead, Dr. Self based his calculations on an “average person,” and he extracted a working expectancy of seventy years old from the work expectancy table. Thus, Dr. Self’s calculations improperly failed to account for the health of the decedent.”
As you can see by the analysis from the court, they again have reached beyond their role as a policy making court and have begun trying cases from their bench. When they don’t like the result, they find any way possible to throw it out. This is just another small way for the court to limit the recoveries of citizens of Texas.