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What is a human life worth?

The idea behind compensation for personal injuries or a wrongful death is that money can somehow make up for the pain and loss suffered by victims and their families. It might seem crass to suggest that a parent who has lost a child or a wife who has lost her husband can be made whole by money. The truth is that no amount of money can make up for losing a loved one, but it is the best that can be done to help victims and their families through a tragedy. Once that premise is accepted, the goal is to find the proper amount of money to award someone whose loss was the result of negligence. In other words, how much is the life lost worth, in the eyes of the law?

A controversial position

One of the common methods of valuing a life depends on the projected earnings of the victim. In the case of a worker who is well established in his or her career, this can be a simple calculation. But what if the victim is a child? How do you calculate the lifetime earnings of a 5-year-old? 

The answer in many courtrooms is to use the victim's demographic profile to determine projected earnings. The problem with that approach, in the eyes of many, is that it ties the value of a person's life to things like gender and race. Women and people of color are projected to earn less, so their families receive less in the event of a wrongful death. The approach could be said to reinforce the inequities of sexism and racism in this country. At the very least, it coldly ignores the merits of an individual and reduces them to a point on a graph.

The uncomfortable results

If a doctor's negligence causes a mother to lose her twin babies during childbirth, the settlement offer would likely be higher for the male twin than the female. If a black man with a master's degree died in a car accident along with a white man with a bachelor's degree, the white man's family would likely receive a larger settlement offer, despite his lower level of education. If a 3-year-old Hispanic boy suffers brain damage in a car accident, his family would receive a lower settlement offer because members of the Hispanic population have been, up to this point, less likely to obtain advanced degrees and earn as much as their white counterparts. In one noteworthy case, the government engaged in an argument over the value of a child whose father was black and mother was white. The government wanted to assign the child's race as black in order to justify a lower payment after State Department doctors caused him brain damage due to their malpractice.

Calculating future lost income

There are alternatives to using race and gender in calculating future lost income. Canada, for one, has banned the practice of using race-based averages. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund began with the race- and gender-based tables, but quickly succumbed to public pressure to abandon them. The law does not have to accept institutional racism and sexism in assigning lower values to the lives of women and people of color.

Every situation requiring us to establish the monetary value of a person is tragic. The process already raises the specter of slavery by asking how much money it takes to buy a human life. While there is no way to return the victim to good health, the process could refrain from adding an additional insult to the injury. The problems that have contributed, and continue to contribute to depressed earnings for women and people of color should not be institutionalized in personal injury and wrongful death cases. There is a better way.

Source: The Washington Post, "In one corner of the law, minorities and women are often valued less" by Kim Soffen, 25 October 2016 

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