The Price of a Life: How much money is a life worth?

judge jury gavel

What is the price of a life lost? Could you put a price tag on your own life or that of a family member, killed at the hands of a negligent defendant? How much would you want people to say your life would have been worth?

These are the questions that juries must face when evaluating “damages” to award in wrongful death cases. Plaintiffs’ attorneys must ask the jurors to award money to a family who has lost its loved one due to the negligence of someone else. It’s tough to ask and even tougher to answer, but when parents have lost their child because of someone’s negligence, there must be some sort of monetary justice for the family.

So how much is a life worth? The Georgia Code provides: “The amount of the recovery shall be the full value of the life of the decedent.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-5. But what determines that full value of life? The judge may instruct the jury: “You should consider the gross sum that the deceased would have earned to the end of life had the deceased not been killed… in determining the amount of the full value of the life of the deceased. The full value of the life of the deceased is not limited to the amount of money that could have or would have been earned had the deceased not been killed.”

In civil wrongful death cases, plaintiffs’ attorneys ask the jury to look at two types of damages: economic loss and intangible loss. The economic damage is the loss of the tangible income the decedent would have accrued over the years; this is a number that economists are able to calculate based on annual salary, expected promotional increases, retirement funds, and the person’s life expectancy before their life was taken.

The intangible damage is a little harder to determine. It is the expectations of life and opportunities of life that the decedent will never have. It’s the number of lives the person would have touched, the people he or she could have helped, and the family members he or she leaves behind. It’s the graduations that will never happen, the wedding that will be missed out on, and the future that will never be shared with that special someone. It’s all of the qualities and characteristics of your best friend or son or daughter that you would miss out on for the rest of your life if he or she were taken from you. So what price tag do you put on the priceless damages?

In a recent case in Georgia, the jury determined that the life of a young woman who was killed while filming a movie near train tracks was worth $11.2 million. In 2012, in the case of Sargent v. Gwinnett Co., No. 08-C-20615-S3, a Gwinnett County jury awarded $2 million to the family of a young man who was killed by the negligent driving of a police officer.

In just these two examples of cases, juries found a person’s life to be worth multi-million dollar amounts. Juries across the country are asked every day to award money to families for the life of the loved one that they lost, but how can they come up with a specific dollar amount? States’ legal codes provide some examples of factors to consider when deciding just how much a person’s life is worth when stolen, but what factors would you want a jury to consider if you lost someone you love? Should his or her life really be reduced down to the the projected income? Or is there a dollar amount more representative of the intangibles of the life lost — the years stolen, the love lost, and experiences missed — due to someone else’s negligence? What would you want your life to be worth?

 

Robin Frazer Clark pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured due to motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others.  Ms. Clark was the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia and is a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. She has practiced law in Georgia for 29 years and is a Georgia Super Lawyer. Ms. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia, and she is a barrister in the International Society of Barristers.  Robin Frazer Clark ~ Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.