On March 13, 2019, a panel of the Appellate Division Second Department issued an opinion in which they overturned a lower Court’s award of future loss of household services. In the case of Finney v. Morton, Jr., the Second Department reviewed the decision of the Supreme Court of Dutchess County and remanded the case for a re-determination of the proper award.
The case arose from an accident on Route 414 in the Town of Hector, New York involving a motorcyclist and a pickup truck. The motorcyclist was driving northbound on Route 414, and the pickup truck was traveling approximately two car lengths behind him at 55 miles per hour. The motorcyclist then came to a stop causing the pickup truck to strike and ultimately kill the operator of the motorcycle. Following the accident, the decedent’s wife and administrator of his state commenced a wrongful death action against the driver of the pickup truck. The case proceeded to a non-jury trial wherein the Judge found the defendant to be 95% responsible for the happening of the accident. The Plaintiffs were then awarded damages for past and future lost earnings and past and future loss of household services.
Following the award, the defendant moved pursuant to CPLR 4404(b), to set aside the verdict as awarded damages for past and future loss of household services. The motion was denied by the Supreme Court of Dutchess County. The Defendant then appealed.
In coming to a decision, the Second Department Panel first recognized that a Judge’s discretion in a non-jury trial is “as broad as that of the trial court, and this Court may render the judgment it finds warranted by the facts.” With that being said, the appellate Court found that the determination that the defendant was 95% at fault was not warranted by the facts. Although the Court recognized a following driver is under a duty to maintain a reasonable distance from the vehicle in front of them, there was evidence at the trial presented that indicated the motorcyclist abruptly veered in front of the pickup truck prior to the accident and then came to a stop in that lane of travel. Considering that evidence, the Second Department determined that the proper appropriation of fault for the happening of the accident was that the defendant was 85% responsible for the happening of the accident. The Court remanded that portion of the case to the Trial Court for a determination of the proper reimbursement.
After determining the proper appropriation of fault, the Court then moved on to the issue of past and future loss of household services. The Court reviewed the record presented to the trial Court and found that the evidence produced did not satisfy the standard for awarding past and future household services. The Court recognized that the standard to measure such damages is the “cost of replacing the decedent’s services.” As for future services, the award should be only for “those services which are reasonably certain to be incurred and necessitated by the decedent’s death.” Although the Plaintiffs provided testimony from an economist based on an average of a two-person household, the Court found that these estimates were too speculative. In fact, there were no specifics provided in regards to the decedent at all. Therefore, the Court found that the Plaintiff should not have been awarded any damages for past and future household services.
To read a full copy of the decision click here.