If a person dies because of someone else’s negligence— a wrongful death—it’s the victim’s family that is left to suffer the grief and loss. So what is the remedy? Determining the value of a human life is no easy task, but it’s one that we, as wrongful death attorneys, often face. One thing is certain—people who have suffered the death of a loved one are looking for affirmation.
In the criminal justice system, when a wrong has been committed, a jury can punish the defendant with jail time. Civil cases are different. The only power the jury has to make things right is to allow money for damages. They can’t issue an advisory opinion or verdict that tells the defendant how to act in the future.
Calculating lost income
One relatively concrete category of damages in a wrongful death case is the loss of financial support and inheritance that the surviving spouse or family members would have received from the decedent’s wages or other income. It’s possible to project, based expert economic and vocational testimony, how long the person would have been expected to work had they not died and the amount of wages that would have come from that work. If the decedent would have had other income over their lifetime, testimony can also project what the surviving family members would have stood to inherit in the future. A jury can allow these lost income amounts as part of the damages for the wrongful death.
Putting a dollar value on emotional loss
Although lost income can be important, we find that the emotional pain to spouses and family members from the untimely loss of their loved one is often the most significant harm suffered. Coming up with a dollar value to compensate for this emotional pain is a delicate process. Still, we have some methods to get the jury thinking of what a fair number might be.
We discuss topics that help remind them of what human life is all about. We talk about relationships—the simple pleasures we take from each other’s company. We talk about gatherings and holidays. We might even talk about the caring and guidance that adults give to younger people.
We remind juries of the emotional impact that somebody who’s lost a spouse, a child or parent must endure. It’s really important for jurors to understand and consider what makes life and relationships important, along with the emptiness felt in a person’s permanent absence. We remind juries of the countless interactions in a relationship that we often take for granted, until we ourselves have lost someone important to us.
Unfortunately, there is no formula or chart that can help a jury quantify this point, so determining a dollar value for life can be quite daunting. Our greatest charge is then to remind juries that while doing so is difficult, it’s also crucial. It is the responsibility of our justice system to ensure that when a wrong has been committed, especially one so egregious as to have cost a person their life, the community must try to compensate for that wrong.
Using examples for framework
To help jurors apply a value to something seemingly invaluable, we might point out items in the news that have sold for incredible sums of money. For example, the Honus Wagner baseball card that sold for 2.8 million dollars a few years ago or the abstract painting by artist Barnett Newman that sold for 43 million dollars. We remind jurors that these items are just ink on cardboard or flecks of paint on a canvas, and yet, they’re valued at millions of dollars. Why? Because they are rare—often masterpieces—and there may only be one in existence. It doesn’t take long for jurors to see the analogy and understand that people are rare and unique masterpieces as well.
Another way to show the value of human life is through the money spent on search parties for missing people. There was a recent news story about two military aircraft that crashed off the coast of Hawaii. Before calling off the search, the community spent millions of dollars and an incredible number of man hours looking for the missing soldiers lost at sea. This easily demonstrates the value we as a society place on life. Even when the hope of finding survivors is slim, we don’t hesitate to spend time and money to implement a rescue.
By giving jurors concrete examples, we can successfully help them understand how to place dollar amounts on things inherently difficult to value. In the end, the money juries allow is not a prize, but a reflection of justice. It shows the jury’s determination that somebody did something wrong, something that cost another person their life, and that the wrongdoer has been held responsible.
We like to focus on the human element, and do the best we can to make sure that our clients get what they need in order to recover and move on after the untimely death of a love one.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.