Our modern legal system has to apply a numerical value to a human life– an imperfect and morbid undertaking, for sure, but the scope of human activity in a modern world inevitably yields death and sometimes disability, so any legal system has to eventually tackle the question. For example, when an American soldier dies in battle, the law dictates that the soldier’s family is compensated for that loss. Life insurance policies are legal contracts to pay living beneficiaries for the death of an insured. And of course, courts and juries deciding wrongful death civil lawsuits have to calculate the value of the deceased and award damages to the bereaved.

Let’s consider for a moment the less enlightened antecedents of our system. We’ve all heard the phrase “an eye for an eye” this historical phrase was never idle chatter, it expresses a widely used principle of retributive justice also known as lex talionis (Latin for “law of retaliation”), and retributive justice was common in earlier periods of human history. The most notable and well-documented examples of this manner of compensation can be found in the Code of Hammurabi and in the laws of the Old Testament.

Today, any owner of an automobile should be delighted that retributive justice is a thing of the past; imagine being chased by an angry mob after a fender bender.

The Currency of Death

Today, our civil legal system uses essentially only one currency to correct wrongs of nearly every variety, and that currency is appropriately American: U.S. Dollars. Lawsuits of every variety, such as torts, breach of contracts, construction defects, negligence, property damage, wrongful death, etc. all must ultimately be distilled to monetary awards.

So, if our society has resolved to reduce life to dollars, what is your life worth? Not much, if you are a soldier in the U.S. armed forces: The death benefit payable to the families of deceased soldiers is $12,420, although recent changes raised that figure to $100,000 if the soldier died in combat operations.

On the other end of the spectrum are U.S. civil cases for wrongful death. Wrongful death is a claim in common law jurisdictions against a person who can be held liable for a death. The claim is brought in a civil action, usually by close relatives, as enumerated by statute. Historically and logically, a dead person cannot bring a suit, and this created a legal hole: activities that resulted in a person’s injury would result in civil sanction, but activities that resulted in a person’s death would not. This paradox ultimately led to the development of the wrongful death doctrine.

One notable example is the 1997 civil damages award of $33,500,000 levied against celebrity O.J. Simpson for the wrongful death of Ron Goldman. That figure, however, included charges of battery against Ron Goldman, and Simpson’s former wife, and $25,000,000 of the total was awarded as punitive damages. There are plenty of documented cases of wrongful death awards reaching or exceeding $100,000,000. Life can be very valuable indeed.

How Courts Calculate the Value of Human Life

Jury awards always vary widely, and often seem arbitrary. Despite this outward appearance of unpredictability, courts try to apply a fairly certain set of guidelines to establish the value of a lost life. The basis of those guidelines fall into two categories: the first is lost earning power, and the second is the more subjective category of various intangible losses. Lost earning power is obviously the more objective of the two inquiries. A projection of lost earning power attempts to answer the question “what would the deceased have earned in his or her life?” This inquiry examines the age of the deceased, her income, her profession, her capacity for future increases in earnings, and other factors, less expenses. The court takes all this information and reduces the deceased’s entire lifetime of earnings into a present-day value. So, as you might imagine, a young life is worth more than an old one, and a doctor’s life is worth more than a janitor’s life.

The subjective, intangible factors are a hopelessly impenetrable hodge-podge of varied state statutes and historical law. Massachusetts allows wrongful death damages for “protection, care, assistance, society, companionship, comfort, guidance, counsel and advice.” Some states strongly dissuade or restrict intangible damages. Some states still allow spouse-only damages for “loss of consortium,” which courts have described either as the loss of companionship or even the loss of intimate relations, depending on how candid the deciding court felt on the day of the decision.

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