On August 26, 2012, Robert Finney was riding his motorcycle on a state road in Schuyler County. At the same time, Christopher Morton was driving his pickup truck two car lengths behind at the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Tragically, Mr. Finney sustained fatal injuries when his motorcycle was struck by Morton’s vehicle.

A 1991 Harley, similar to the one in this case.

In the ensuing non-jury trial in Dutchess County, the judge ruled that fault for the crash should be apportioned 95% to the defendant and 5% to the decedent.

Plaintiff (Finney’s wife as administrator of his estate) claimed significant economic damages based upon the unrefuted testimony of an economist with expertise in the evaluation of pecuniary losses in wrongful death cases. The judge agreed with the economist and found that plaintiff sustained economic losses (before apportionment) in the sum of $1,552,667 as follows: $1,065,670 for past and future lost earnings, $87,239 for lost benefits and $369,758 for loss of household services.

Defendant moved to set aside the verdict claiming that he was not at all responsible for the crash and, in any event,  that plaintiff failed to submit sufficient evidence at trial  (such as testimony from Mrs. Finney as to what household services had been performed by him before her husband died) to support an award for loss of household services. After the trial judge denied the motion, defendant appealed.

In Finney v. Morton (2d Dept. 2019), the appellate court ruled that:

  1. the decedent’s share of liability should be increased from 5% to 15% and
  2. the household services award should be set aside because there was insufficient trial evidence to support that claim

The dispute over the household services award concerned the type of evidence that is required to support such a claim as a matter of law.

  • Plaintiff argued that the testimony of her economist was sufficient because he discussed the nature of the services that members in a two person home typically provide that are a benefit to the people in the home and are then measured this in terms of what studies have shown for average households of certain characteristics and estimates of what the value of their services in the home are.
  • Defendant argued, successfully, that there was no evidence at trial of actual expenditures incurred in replacing whatever household services decedent may have performed in the past, or of any anticipated future expenditures with regard to such services.

Plaintiff is seeking leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals. She argues that to establish a loss of household services claim in a wrongful death case, there is no precedent that requires, in addition to the expert testimony adduced in this case, evidence of the actual services a decedent performed. We will follow this case and report any future developments.

Inside Information:

  • Plaintiff was 46 years old at the time of his death. He was a mechanic who performed repair and maintenance on diesel trucks and equipment. He earned about $60,000 per year and was survived only by his wife (they had no children).
  • Plaintiff died instantly at the scene; there was no pre-death pain and suffering claim.