Damages in a Minnesota wrongful death lawsuit are defined as the pecuniary loss suffered by the next of kin. Minn. Stat. § 573.02. “Pecuniary” means money and the relevant jury instruction asks the jury to determine an amount of money that will fairly and adequately compensate the next of kin for the losses that they suffered as a result of the death and taking into account several factors including monetary contribution, relative health, legal obligations to provide support, funeral expenses, and other money-oriented factors. CIVJIG 91.75.
This is a rather perverse measure of damages in many cases, and the pecuniary loss associated with a death can vary wildly from person to person. For breadwinners and parents who are killed, there is significant basis under the law to award money to the next of kin – after all, the earning potential is lost and taking care of children and raising them is a tremendous expense. The jury is specifically instructed not to consider money that would punish the defendant, compensate the surviving family for grief or emotional distress, or compensate for the decedent’s pain and suffering before death. CIVJIG 91.75.
But a person’s value to those around them is not measured in the amount of money they bring home or the value of the meals they cook and domestic services they provide. Superficially, it would seem that Minnesota law does not allow recovery for retired persons or small children who are dearly loved but are not expected to add to a family’s bottom line. But the Minnesota jury instruction gives some leeway for the jury to consider the pecuniary loss associated with a loved one, as it speaks to the loss of “counsel, guidance,” “aid,” “advice, comfort, assistance, companionship, and protection” that the decedent would have provided if they had lived. CIVJIG 91.75. So in medical malpractice cases resulting in the death of fetuses, young children, and the elderly, there is still room to prove the tremendous loss that was suffered and recover under Minnesota law. After all, what is the value of an elderly family member’s advice and counsel? What is the value of a child’s companionship? When properly presented to a jury, these numbers are substantial and give room to hold wrongdoers responsible for causing significant harms to the elderly and children.