the matter in the hands of the Court without expressing any views as to what, if any, action should be taken under this provision.
As has been heretofore stated, the verdict in favor of the administratrix of the estate of Donald E. Thomas as damages for his death, was for $156,225. Of this amount $1225 represents funeral expenses. Consequently the damages awarded for the death itself were $155,000.
The law of the District of Columbia, as did the original Lord Campbell's Act, limits damages for wrongful death to the pecuniary loss sustained by persons who were dependent on the deceased or to whom the deceased made or might be reasonably expected to make contributions. The salient facts bearing on the amount of damages in the Thomas case are as follows. The deceased Donald E. Thomas was born on July 31, 1934. He was, therefore, exactly 26 years old at the time of his death. His life expectancy was 40.4 years. His wife, Shirley Thomas, was 27 years old. The couple had two sons: Donald Thomas, Jr., 8 years old; and Martin Thomas, two years old. During the preceding June the deceased had graduated from Teachers' College and was planning to enter the District of Columbia School System the following fall as a teacher.
To establish some basis for a determination of the amount of damages, plaintiff's counsel followed the course frequently pursued in such cases and called an expert statistician as a witness. The latter testified that his best estimate of the present value of the total earnings that the deceased might have been expected to receive during his entire working life expectancy was $155,000. He then explained the method used by him in arriving at this result. It was assumed by him that the working life expectancy of the deceased was 36 years; that the salary of a teacher in the District of Columbia at the time of his death was $5,000 a year; that on the average his salary would have been likely to increase by about 3% annually; that $1,000 a year should be deducted from his annual salary for his own maintenance and his other personal expenses; and that some allowance, the witness did not say how much, should be made for the possibility of his death prior to the end of his working life expectancy. He then stated that he took the aggregate amount of earnings computed by this method and reduced it to present worth, discounting the total at the rate of 4% per annum. Unfortunately, counsel did not interrogate the witness further and did not request him to give his computations, step by step in detail, but confined his testimony, as stated, to a statement of the ultimate estimate and an explanation of the general method used to reach it. Failure to make the elaboration greatly weakens the probative weight of the testimony, since no means are presented for checking the detailed calculation made by the witness.
For the time being, we shall assume arguendo that the computation made by the witness was mathematically correct on the basis of the method used by him. Actuarial testimony as to possible or probable future earnings of the deceased, and the reduction of the aggregate amount to present worth, is admissible and is generally presented in cases of wrongful death of an adult breadwinner of a family. It is, however, far from conclusive. Such evidence is only the starting point and not the terminus of the inquiry. It may not be adopted at its face value as the sole basis for the determination of damages for death. Especially is this true in a case where the deceased had not as yet established himself in a specific occupation in which he was earning a set income and was likely to continue. It may be otherwise in some cases in which the deceased had attained a permanent status in his calling and was receiving a salary that was permanently assured. In some cases of this type, the actuarial testimony, if detailed enough, may even be accepted as final without consideration of other factors. Here, however, the deceased only planned to enter the teaching profession, but had not as yet reached that point. There is always a question under such circumstances whether the person would be successful in his chosen line of endeavor.
The vicissitudes of fortune, the buffetings of fate, and the uncertainties of life and health, must invariably be considered. Fairness and justice require that the amount reached on an actuarial basis be reasonably reduced in the light of these additional factors. Otherwise, damages would be awarded on the basis of an assumed success in one's occupation and a guaranteed income. In the case at bar the verdict would give greater financial security to the family than it would have had if the deceased had lived.
An illuminating discussion of this topic is contained in a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Iowa, Brophy v. Iowa-Illinois Gas and Electric Company, 254 Iowa 895, 119 N.W.2d 865, 866:
"No evidence is possible of the time which deceased would have lived but for the injury complained of. Had he avoided this injury, death may have met him the next day, week, or year in some other form. In business he might have become a phenomenal success and accumulated millions, or he might have lived to old age and died a pauper. From a man of good habits, prudence and industry, he might have become a spendthrift or a tramp, or if a man of dissolute habits he might have reformed into an efficient and prosperous citizen."
In O'Connor v. United States, 269 F.2d 578, 582, a decision of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the Court made the following statements as a helpful guide to the elements that must be considered and weighed in determining the amount of damages in a wrongful death case:
"What the decedent was actually earning at the time of his death is a major factor in determining earning capacity. It is also proper to consider the length of time he worked for his employer (in this case four months); the prospect of his retaining his job and the opportunities for other employment; his chances for future promotion or demotion, his and his wife's and child's probable life expectancies, his physical condition, habits and the ordinary vicissitudes of life."