Damages for wrongful death can be hard to obtain in Minnesota, where the law requires establishing “pecuniary loss.” The difficulty was reflected in a recent ruling of the Minnesota Court of Appeals upholding a zero-damage jury verdict in Holtegaard v. Soo Line R.R. Co., 2014 WL 3396871 (Minn. App. 07/14/2014)(unpublished). The jury refused to award damages to the next-of-kin of an unmarried man without any children who was killed when he stumbled and fell on a railroad track in Winona and was fatally struck by an oncoming train. Unlike some other jurisdictions, Minnesota does not permit recovery for grief or emotional distress of surviving relatives, or pain and suffering of the decedent. However, Minnesota law does permit recovery of punitive damages if the high standard of “clear and convincing” evidence of “deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others” under Minn. Stat. §549.20, subd. 1 is met. This leaves recovery only for “pecuniary” harm to family members, which consists of lost financial support and intangible factors, such as counsel, guidance, aid, comfort, and companionship.
The Holtegaard ruling underscores the challenges facing wrongful death claimants in establishing damages on behalf of single people without dependents. Advocates for wrongful death claimants should emphasize any past financial assistance and likely future financial contributions from the decedent, as well as the close personal relationships between the decedent and family members. Those defending against these claims should try to show the decedent’s limited interactions with family members and demonstrate a lack of any financial transfers from the decedent to kin over the years.
Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC