What is the Value of a Life?

Lawyers are sometimes asked to do nearly impossible things. One of them is to value a life terminated by someone else's carelessness. It is very difficult to do. My first reaction to having that task is to sit back and think, "How can I equate a finite amount of money with all the things that comprised that person's life?" One article on the subject caught my attention. It suggested that the value of a life depends on whatever government agency is considering it. The article's 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, the termination of life 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, negligent doctor or whomever. 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.

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