The Value of Life

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In a few days I will be asking a Fulton County, Georgia jury to return a verdict for the plaintiff for the full value of the life of a young man who was 31 years old when he died, a husband and a father of two young sons. What the value of life is is a subject I contemplate often, given the fact that I find myself trying so many wrongful death cases in Georgia these days as a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer.

Interestingly, in Georgia, the jury is to view the value of life from the decedent’s eyes, not from their own and not from loved one’s. We typically show that by having friends and family come into court and testify about what the decedent enjoyed doing, how he spent time with his friends and family, his Faith, his priorities in life, his values, his moral character, his love. In Georgia, we have the Wrongful Death Act, “§ 51-4-2. Homicide of spouse or parent; survival of action,” in which the negligent death of a person is called an “homicide.” The surviving spouse is allowed to bring the cause of action and if there is no surviving spouse, the decedent’s children bring it and if there are no children, the decedent’s parents bring it and if there are no parents an appointed administrator brings it. Under Georgia law, O.C.G.A. § 51-4-1, the “full value of the life” is defined as follows: “Full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence” means the full value of the life of the decedent without deducting for any of the necessary or personal expenses of the decedent had he lived.

And therein lies the conundrum…because really, isn’t a life priceless? If you Google “value of life” there are plenty of ideas on what that means, but very little on what’s it’s worth. There is even a Wikipedia entry on “value of life.” This is what Georgia juries must do in every courthouse in the State of Georgia on a weekly or at least monthly basis…determine the value of someone’s life in real money, not terms of art. And we plaintiffs’ attorneys trust that juries make the right decisions. We know juries take their solemn oath seriously and work hard to do justice and impartially find the right outcome. We cannot, as citizens, ask for more.

We know there is both an economic component (how much did the person make? what would have been his lifetime income?) and a noneconomic component, intrinsic in nature, hard to quantify in dollars, but which we know has extreme value. In fact, it is arguably worth more than the economic part, because we all know when we are on our death bed we don’t say “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” The folks at Harvard Law School I guess disagree with me because they are so smart they even figured out a mathematical formula to determine the value of life. Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney responsible for parceling out settlement money to 911 victims and the attorney responsible for determining the value of claims in the BP Oil spill has had to ponder the value of life. Mr. Feinberg believes all lives are worth the same. I am not willing to agree to that. Some people don’t value their lives all that much, like the person who crosses I-285 on foot, or the person who doesn’t make sure his fire alarms work, or the person who crosses an intersection while talking on his cellphone or texting. When you truly value something you take care of it, you protect it, you honor it.

Next week when I ask the Fulton County jury to return the full value of my client’s life, you can bet I won’t be using Harvard’s mathematical formula. I’ll be asking the jury to return a verdict that speaks the truth about the sacred worth of a human being.