Elmer Buchta Trucking, Inc. v. Stanley

Decision Date26 March 2001
Docket NumberNo. 14S01-0002-CV-114.,14S01-0002-CV-114.
Citation744 N.E.2d 939
PartiesELMER BUCHTA TRUCKING, INC., Appellant (Defendant Below), v. Christina STANLEY and Larry Stanley as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Michael G. Stanley, Appellees (Plaintiffs Below).
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

Robert F. Wagner, Dina M. Cox, Indianapolis, IN, D. Timothy Born, Shawn M. Sullivan, Evansville, IN, Attorneys for Appellant.

John B. Drummy, Eric D. Johnson, Indianapolis, IN, James D. Johnson, Evansville, IN, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana.

F. Wesley Bowers, Evansville, IN, Attorney for Amicus Curiae.

James R. Fisher, Debra H. Miller, Indianapolis, IN, Attorneys for Appellee.

William F. Conour, Indianapolis, IN, Attorney for Amicus Curiae Indiana Trial Lawyers Association.


SHEPARD, Chief Justice.

Under Indiana's wrongful death statute, a decedent's estate may recover damages for the lost earnings of the deceased, among other things. This has long been understood not to include that portion of decedent's earnings that the decedent himself would have consumed for his own personal expenses and maintenance. The question here is whether the legislature changed that rule in 1965. We conclude it did not.

Facts and Procedural History

In July 1996, Michael Stanley was fatally injured during a vehicular collision with Luther Leslie, an employee of Elmer Buchta Trucking, Inc. ("Buchta"). Stanley's wife and three children survived him.

In December 1996, Stanley's estate ("Stanley") filed suit against Leslie's estate ("Leslie") and Buchta. Buchta and Leslie admitted liability, acknowledging that Leslie's negligence caused Stanley's death and that Buchta was vicariously liable for damages recoverable under the wrongful death statute. Stanley then dismissed the suit against Leslie and proceeded to trial against Buchta on the issue of damages.

Before trial, Stanley filed two motions in limine seeking to exclude evidence about the amount of Michael Stanley's anticipated earnings that Stanley himself would have consumed had he lived. The trial court granted the motions.

At trial, Stanley called economist George Launey to testify about the amount of lost earnings Stanley's estate suffered because of his death. Before Launey testified, Buchta made an offer to prove regarding the amount of Stanley's earnings that he would have consumed for personal expenses or maintenance throughout his life. The offer to prove revealed that had Launey been allowed to do so, he would have said the amount of lost earnings should be reduced by about twenty-four percent. Having heard the offer to prove, the trial court still excluded evidence of personal consumption.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Stanley. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Elmer Buchta Trucking, Inc. v. Stanley, 713 N.E.2d 925 (Ind.Ct.App.1999). We granted transfer.

I. Evidence of Personal Consumption

Buchta first asserts that the trial court erred in prohibiting evidence about Stanley's personal consumption.1

A. Wrongful Death Statute. At common law, there was no liability in tort for the death of another. Ed Wiersma Trucking Co. v. Pfaff, 678 N.E.2d 110 (Ind.1997), adopting, 643 N.E.2d 909, 911 (Ind.Ct.App. 1994). In 1852, the General Assembly passed the predecessor statute to our current law, allowing the personal representative of a deceased to bring an action for wrongful death but limiting damages to $5,000. Id. The damages recovered inured to the benefit of the surviving spouse and children, if any, or to the next of kin. Id.

The legislature has amended the act a good many times during the intervening century and a half. It has, for example, added the requirement of dependency in relation to the decedent's children and next of kin, added a third class of "death creditor" beneficiaries, and increased the limits on recovery. Id.

By 1965, the statute had reached its present form, which recognizes three classes of beneficiaries and provides that the personal representative is the proper party to maintain an action for damages for the benefit of the estate beneficiaries. See Ind.Code Ann. § 34-23-1-1 (West 1999). Damages for medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses inure to the estate and to the payment of these expenses, while the remainder of damages inure to the exclusive benefit of the decedent's spouse and dependent children, if any, or to the dependent next of kin. Id.

The portion of the statute pertinent to the present case now reads as follows:

When the death of one is caused by the wrongful act or omission of another, the personal representative of the former may maintain an action therefore against the latter, . . . When the death of one is caused by the wrongful act or omission of another, the action shall be commenced by the personal representative of the decedent within two (2) years, and the damages shall be in such an amount as may be determined by the court or jury, including, but not limited to, reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses, and lost earnings of such deceased person resulting from said wrongful act or omission.

Ind.Code Ann. § 34-23-1-1 (emphasis added).

B. Statutory Interpretation. When deciding questions of statutory interpretation, appellate courts need not defer to a trial court's interpretation of the statute's meaning. Rather, we independently review the statute's meaning and apply it to the facts of the case under review. See Figg v. Bryan Rental Inc., 646 N.E.2d 69 (Ind.Ct.App.1995),

trans. denied. If a statute is unambiguous, we may not interpret it, but must give the statute its clear and plain meaning. In re Grissom, 587 N.E.2d 114 (Ind.1992). If a statute is ambiguous, however, we must ascertain the legislature's intent and interpret the statute so as to effectuate that intent. Whitacre v. State, 629 N.E.2d 1236 (Ind.1994),

adopting, 619 N.E.2d 605, 606 (Ind.Ct.App.1993). A statute is ambiguous where it is susceptible to more than one interpretation. Amoco Prod. Co. v. Laird, 622 N.E.2d 912 (Ind.1993).

Here, Buchta and Stanley disagree about the import of the phrase "lost earnings of [the] deceased person." Buchta argues that since the statute does not explicitly mention a deduction for the deceased's personal living expenses, such a deduction should be allowed. Conversely, Stanley argues that since the statute says that damages "shall include" the lost earnings of the deceased, and does not mention deductions for personal expenses, such a deduction is prohibited.

The words of the statute arguably supports both of the competing interpretations advocated by the parties. Thus, we examine the legislature's purpose in enacting the wrongful death statute. In doing so, we are hardly writing on a clean slate.

Indiana's courts have long held that the purpose of the wrongful death statute was "to create a cause of action to provide a means by which those who have sustained a loss by reason of the death may be compensated." In re Estate of Pickens, 255 Ind. 119, 126, 263 N.E.2d 151, 155 (1970). "Pecuniary loss is the foundation of a wrongful death action, and the damages are limited to the pecuniary loss suffered by those for whose benefit the action may be maintained." Wiersma, 643 N.E.2d at 911 (citations omitted). "Pecuniary loss can be determined, in part, from the assistance that the decedent would have provided through money, services, or other material benefits." Id.

In Consolidated Stone Co. v. Staggs, 164 Ind. 331, 337, 73 N.E. 695, 697 (1905), this Court said the following about the measure of damages from wrongful death:

Under a statute like ours, which gives a new right of action, distinct from that which the deceased might have maintained, the measure of damages is compensation for the pecuniary loss sustained by the party or parties entitled to the benefit of the action. The sole inquiry is how many dollars are necessary to compensate the beneficiaries for the pecuniary loss caused to them by the wrongful death. The damages are not to be estimated at the value of the life lost, but at such a sum as will compensate the persons on whose behalf the action is brought for the pecuniary injury which they have sustained by the death.

Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

Consistent with this reading, the statute has long been understood to contemplate a deduction for the amount of personal maintenance expenses that the decedent would have incurred over the remainder of his lifetime.

As tending to establish the extent of these losses, it is proper to consider the probable future earnings of the husband and father, and his age, health, strength, occupation, habits, opportunities and capability are elements of this consideration. These cases recognize the rule that the gross earnings should be subject to deduction on account of the reasonable cost of his own support and that the present payment of the sum awarded in damages is a proper circumstance in determining the amount which shall be allowed as the equivalent of the earning capacity of the deceased.

Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Chicago, & St. Louis Ry. Co. v. Burton, 139 Ind. 357, 378, 37 N.E. 150, 156 (1894); see also Richmond Gas Corp. v. Reeves, 158 Ind.App. 338, 364, 302 N.E.2d 795, 813 (1973)

(citing the Voight language favorably).

The court instructed the jury that they were entitled to assess as damages "a sum equal to the amount the deceased might have earned, as shown by the evidence, not to exceed the sum of $10,000 during the period of his life, in which he would have probably earned money, deducting therefrom the reasonable cost of his own support, and making a fair deduction for the present payment of said sum."

Ohio & Mississippi Ry. Co. v. Voight, 122 Ind. 288, 295-96, 23 N.E. 774, 776 (1890).

As in the 1970 case of Pickens, 255 Ind. 119, 263 N.E.2d 151, we repeated this notion about the measure of recovery in Burnett v. State, 467 N.E.2d 664 (Ind.1984), in which we...

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