I’ve written on several occasions about Alabama’s unique wrongful death law. Wrongful death claims in Alabama are very different. Chief among the issues that make Alabama wrongful death law different — only punitive damages are recoverable. You cannot recover compensatory damages for actual losses like medical costs.
Many lawyers advertise for wrongful death claims. Yet, they fail to understand fully the impact of Alabama’s unique law. And, this lack of understanding can have a tremendously negative impact on the overall recovery for clients.
An attorney’s entire preparation and trial strategy should be designed for the unique damages recoverable in Alabama. Yet, many attorneys prepare these cases as all other cases. That’s a mistake. It is short-sighted and costly for clients.
The damage issue does not simply impact trial strategy. It also impacts the proceeds after a settlement or judgment. In personal injury cases, medical insurers have certain rights to be reimbursed for medical payments. In personal injury cases, medical reimbursement and subrogation are important issues. We frequently deal with Blue Cross, Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare, among many medical payers in those cases. Understanding the law concerning reimbursement and subrogation in personal injury claims is crucial. A lawyer who understands these issues can often benefit his or her client tremendously.
Wrongful death law in Alabama is different. Although I can repeat that truth again and again, many lawyers treat these claims just as a normal personal injury claim. And, this also impacts their handling of medical subrogation and reimbursement claims. In the last few years, I have overheard several attorneys discussing reimbursement payments to health insurers in wrongful death cases they have settled. I just want to stop them and ask why? As I mentioned earlier – wrongful death damages in Alabama are only punitive. You cannot recover compensatory damages for medical bills. So, why are these lawyers paying reimbursement and subrogation claims in cases that involve only wrongful death issues? It’s a lack of understanding that costs clients.
Medicare is a good example here. Whenever Medicare pays medical costs that might be recoverable from a third party, it has a claim. We frequently receive letters from Medicare in our personal injury cases. In some states, wrongful death claims include compensatory damages for losses such as medical bills. In those states, Medicare has certain reimbursement rights. Again, Alabama wrongful death law does not allow the recovery of compensatory damages. It’s only punitive. So, medical costs are not recoverable. And, if not recoverable, then there is nothing to reimburse.
Discussions of issues like subrogation and reimbursement may sound boring. However, they are important in both personal injury and wrongful death litigation. Expertise and experience in these issues can make a huge difference in how much a client receives at the end of a case. These are issues that separate good legal counsel from the large number of advertising lawyers simply fishing for cases to settle quickly.