As a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer in Georgia, I often represent the loved ones of someone who was killed in a car or tractor-trailer wreck. More and more of my trials in Georgia now involve the death of someone due to someone else’s negligence or carelessness (carelessness is simply another word for negligence). In these wrongful death trials I must suggest to the jury a dollar number I feel adequately represents the full value of the life of the decedent, from the perspective of the decedent, which is the Georgia standard on which a jury must decide wrongful death damages.
Recently, while reading about the numerous salary deals various Major League baseball teams have made with players, it made me wonder: is the value of your life worth a Major League Baseball player’s salary? For example, Freddie Freeman, the Braves beloved first baseman, just signed an 8 year $135 Million contract with the Braves. That’s more than $14 Million per year. Craig Kimbrel, the Braves’ awesome closer, just signed a contract to receive $40 Million for four years. If you were asked as a juror to value another Georgian’s life for the purpose of damages and holding the wrongdoer responsible, would you agree a person’s life is worth at least the same amount as an 8 year contract to play first base? What if we asked to value your own life…or better yet… to value the life of your son, or your daughter? They are priceless, right? And yet Georgia law, in a wrongful death lawsuit, says a juror must use nothing more than their “enlightened conscience” of the twelve person jury to decide this dollar figure.
This evaluation of the “full value of the life” of a Georgian includes both an economic component (past and future lost wages) and a noneconomic component (the intangible quality of life damages). I often tell a jury that we know the noneconomic component is worth much more because when a loved one is hurt, what is the first thing you ask? You ask: “Are they OK? Are they hurt? Are they suffering? Will they be OK?” You don’t ask: “How much income will they lose because of this?”
I have often heard say that if society truly valued people based on what they do for mankind, our teachers would be paid like our major league baseball players. It is our teachers who we owe the most debt of gratitude for. I am thinking of teachers today as I write this because I am preparing for a case involving the death of a 23 year old kindergarten teacher. Her students loved her. Her fellow teachers loved her. And her parents loved her beyond measure. This young teacher was changing the world, one child at a time. What is the value of her life?
A recent study from Harvard and Columbia Universities attempted to answer this very question: what is the value of a good teacher? The study’s findings were astonishing: “Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime —or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn.”
So as I contemplate the value of the life of my 23 year old teacher, which her parents have now entrusted me, I wonder: Can a Georgia jury ever place a dollar number on that verdict form that truly represents the “full value of the life” of this teacher? She may have taught a United States President, or a Nobel Prize winner or a scientist who cures cancer. How do we value that? In lives influenced for the better? In friendships? In sunsets? In Love? Is it worth Freddie’s $135 Million, or Kimbrel’s $40 Million? Without question. And more.