How Much Is A Life (Or A Leg, Arm, Finger) Worth?

Generally speaking, the notion of putting a monetary value on a human life is repugnant to our social and religious mores.  Human life is priceless, right?

But the truth is that we attach monetary values to lives (and limbs) every day.  In wrongful death actions, in personal injury actions, in workers’ compensation cases, judges, jurors and workers’ comp. commissioners are required to place a monetary value on a lost life or limb.  This process has become, well, almost routine.

I say “almost” because, if it had become completely routine, it would no longer engender controversy when, for example, 3000 people are killed in terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, 26 people, mostly children, are killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, or dozens of people are maimed (and several killed) at the Boston Marathon.   In connection with each of these tragedies, multi-million dollar funds were created to distribute monies to the victims and their families.   The creation of these funds necessarily led to the question, “How much money should each person get?”

One man in particular has become perhaps the world’s leading expert in answering this question: Ken Feinberg.

A recently published article in the National Journal describes Feinberg this way:

Feinberg is the nearly ubiquitous expert who has been called in to divvy up funds for the fallen and the injured in a stomach-churning sequence of tragedies, from the Sept. 11 attacks to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, from the Virginia Tech shootings to the Boston bombings. He’s Death’s accountant. When the stands collapsed at the Indiana State Fair in 2011, killing seven, they called Ken Feinberg. When a gunman murdered 27 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, they called Ken Feinberg. His is the grimmest of specialties.

Feinberg is very, very good at what he does.  But what he does or, perhaps more accurately, the private victim funds for whom he typically works, are not above criticism:

In 2004, after Feinberg wrapped up the 9/11 fund, Julie Goldscheid, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law, compared the compensation given to three groups—terrorism victims, the more than 1,000 women killed that year as a result of domestic violence, and the 40,000 to 60,000 women who were sexually assaulted. The average 9/11 fund award, she noted, was $2 million, with payments ranging from $500 to $8.6 million. In 2001, the average award to crime victims through state victim-compensation programs was $2,400. “The contrast was just stark,” Goldscheid says, calling it part of an “unfortunate history of a narrative about deserving and undeserving victims.”

Private fundraising for certain classes of victims, she says, “opens the door to long-standing biases.” Nowhere might this be more true than in Chicago. At the time of the Newtown tragedy last December, 270 children under 18 had been gunned down on Chicago’s streets during the previous three years. One was 7-year-old Heaven Sutton, who was hit by a stray bullet while selling candy outdoors a few months before Newtown. Her family asked for donations to cover the cost of the burial and even setting up a table at her memorial service. “If you think about a victim of gang violence, they do tend to be kids of color,” Goldscheid says. “Is there a sensibility that they are somehow at fault?” According to the Illinois attorney general’s office, the maximum a murder victim or the family can receive from the state compensation fund is $27,000. (Litigating en masse against the gun industry is no longer a realistic option since Congress passed a law in 2005 granting broad immunity to firearms manufacturers.)

To do the work he does, Feinberg tries to maintain an emotional distance from the tragedies and their victims.  He doesn’t visit the sites of the tragedies.  And when he meets with victims, he does so in his office, not in the hospital.  He broke that rule once–and he won’t break it again:

He broke his rule in Boston when he visited two victims at a rehabilitation facility—and he regrets it now. The first man, he says, greeted Feinberg with bitterness: “You’re going to give me a million dollars or more,” he said. “I’ve got a better idea. Give me my leg back.” The second victim’s legs were stippled by shrapnel and gangrene, but he still had them. He had been lying in bed doing the math, and he had a simple question for Feinberg. Should he have his legs amputated before the July 1 deadline for determining his award? The difference in his payout would have been more than $1 million, tax free. Feinberg didn’t know what to say. The man decided to keep his legs—and received $948,300. The first man, who lost one leg, received $1,195,000. Feinberg walked out of the facility that day and vowed: Never again. “There have to be limits,” he says.

Take some time and read the full article.  It will be time well spent, even if you can’t put on dollar value on it.

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