A New York Times headline caught my attention last week. It asked, "What is the value of a life?" As a lawyer who handles personal injury and deaths caused by someone else's carelessness, I often have to put a monetary value on life. It is very difficult to do. The first reaction to having that task is to sit back and think, "How can I equate a certain amount of money with all the things that comprised that person's life?" The New York Times article that compelled my attention went on to say that the value of a life depends on whatever government agency is considering it. But the general theme was that one way to measure the cost of a life is by the amount of money spent trying to save a life.
For example, the Department of Homeland Security spends a lot of money trying to prevent deaths from terrorism. The Department of Defense spends a huge amount trying to stop deaths from IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The health department devotes money to preventing cancer deaths. In general, the government seems to value a life at between 6 and 9 million dollars.
Those are interesting measures, but in the law there are different standards for valuing a wrongful death, that is, one caused by an accident, medical or nursing home malpractice, or a dangerous product. In Alabama, the damages are punitive, so a jury there can award whatever sum it thinks should be sufficient to punish the conduct of the bad trucker or the careless doctor. Georgia puts a jury in the shoes of the deceased person to value the entire life from that person's perspective. Florida on the other hand imposes limits by defining specific elements of damage that can be awarded for wrongful death. Included in those are the emotional suffering of the family members due to the loss, medical and funeral expenses, loss of companionship and guidance to children, and the lost earnings that might have been expected to go to the family. Valuing a life for court cases is a complex process made no easier by the various laws that exist.