What Is Life Worth?
'What they are arguing is the human life value is based on what you put into their calculator, and it isn't.' -- economist John ScarbroughCourts have traditionally assigned the somewhat arbitrary value of about $50,000 to children.Juries said Ron Goldman and an entire Nipomo, Calif., family were each worth $8.5 million. The federal government says you're worth at least $1.8 million. A computer program for life insurance companies says I'm worth $324,383. Some might say that's too much, but Immanuel Kant says I'm priceless. So do my kids.How do we assign value to human life? What a strange question that is. How can we even begin to place values on something as wonderfully incalculable as human life, let alone hard, cold dollar figures?But we do, and we must. Juries must decide what the death of wrongfully killed individuals is worth to the survivors. Life insurance companies must figure what a life is worth to the family left behind. The government must decide whether the number of lives saved is worth the cost of a particular regulation. Even philosophers weigh in on the issue of human life's value.There are formulas, computer programs, and actuarial tables that spit out numbers putting a value on life. But that only presents part of the picture. The real value of a person comes from the intangibles. Love is tough to quantify; so is kindness and emotional support. California law, unlike that in some other states, values such intangibles. It allocates recoverable value to the "loss of love, companionship, comfort, affection, society, solace, [and] moral support."The value of a human life is immeasurable. Or is it?INTANGIBLE VALUESThe civil trial involving the Medina family is a great case study for looking at how we place values on human life.Lupe and Maria Medina, their three daughters, and his parents were all killed Oct. 21, 1995, in a head-on collision with a water truck that veered into their lane near Bakersfield, Calif.With the irresponsible turn of a wheel, the Nipomo family was gone.The defendants, Crop Care Applicators, admitted liability in the case, the CCA truck driver having fled the scene and apparently the country. The admission made the trial purely about deciding how much the family was worth. There was no "should they pay?" only "how much should they pay?"The family's lawyers helped distill the value of life deliberations by choosing not to use economists and make the case about lost earning potential and familial support.Instead, they focused on the intangible issues, the human factors. They painted a touching portrait of the Medina family with testimony from friends, employers, neighbors, customers, churchmates, and teachers."We took a more human approach on this case, with teachers instead of economists," said Tom Sheets, a lawyer who worked on the case.Ultimately, the jury didn't say that Lupe, Maria, Jose, Ramona, Monica, Veronica, and Angela would have contributed $8.5 million to their survivors, but that the loss of these people was worth $8.5 million.It is said to be the largest verdict a Kern County jury has ever awarded in a car accident.Most of the family's value -- about one-third, some jurors told lawyers -- was placed on Lupe.Beyond being the sole breadwinner, Lupe was presented as a remarkable human being.He built his own house, and built an addition a couple years later for his parents. He helped his large extended family figure out their finances and set up businesses. He relearned long-forgotten school lessons to be a better father for his daughters. He ran the store where he was simply an employee. He volunteered at his church and his children's schools.Do noble actions and deeds add value to a person's life? According to the Medina jury, the answer is yes. WHAT ARE YOU WORTH?The touchy-feely approach of the Medina family's attorneys seems to be the exception, not the rule. When lawyers and economists assign value to a human life, they usually begin -- and sometimes end -- by analyzing lost future earning potential and support for survivors."Some lawyers would say [the approach in the Medina trial] is malpractice," said James McKiernan, a San Luis Obispo lawyer who does personal injury and wrongful death cases. "You have to present an economist."One of the country's leading economic experts in determining the value of a human life is John Scarbrough, president of the Connecticut-based Litigation Analytics Inc."The loss to a family because of a death has really been the same since man was hunting mastodons," said Scarbrough, who has been offering economic courtroom testimony since the 1970s.Someone's death leaves that family in need of whatever it was that person provided. For a hunter-gatherer, that means food and supplies. For a breadwinner, that means money. For a homemaker, it means domestic help.Generally, Scarbrough said, human life value is calculated by adding earnings through retirement, the value of fringe benefits like health insurance, and the value of services to the family, then subtracting taxes and what the decedent would have consumed.Using that basic information, Scarbrough then factors in things like inflation, compensation trends by industry, health factors of an individual, and other economic details. That formula lends itself to automation. "It seemed what we were doing in the courtroom testimony was really tailor-made for a computer program," Scarbrough said.So his company in the late '70s developed PhD Life, among the first computer programs to calculate the economic value of a person's life.Other computer programs have followed, including one used by Young Wooldridge, the attorneys for the Medina family. With that program, one inputs biographical information about a person wrongfully killed and the program spits out a value for that person based on a database of California jury verdicts.For a cold, hard look at what you're worth, denizens of the World Wide Web can stop by the LIFE-Line Calculator at www.life-line.org/calc_life.html, sponsored by a life insurance adjuster association.It asks for your income level, age, familial status, consumption patterns, and other information, and it spits out your "net present value," or the capital equivalent today of your future projected income, as well as your "total to retirement human life value," a bigger number."While the emotional value of your life to your loved ones is immeasurable," promotes the site, "your financial value, or 'human life value,' is measurable, and considerable."Scarbrough is critical of such gimmicky human life value models. In fact, he said Litigation Analytics was contacted by the LIFE-Line people about using their modeling software. Instead, Scarbrough tried to talk them out of using the calculator on their Web site, arguing that there are just too many nuances and factors that affect human life value."Their job is to educate the public," Scarbrough said. "And what they are arguing is the human life value is based on what you put into their calculator, and it isn't." RELATIVE VS. ABSOLUTE VALUESome philosophers would agree."Probably the most obvious context in which philosophers raise the question of the value of human life is in ethics, and there are two diametrically opposed moral theories that essentially stake out the two extremes possible here: Either life has absolute value, or its value is purely relative," said Paul Miklowitz, the head of Cal Poly's Philosophy Department.German philosopher Immanuel Kant, with his standard of "universalizable" moral rules, believes people have absolute value far above other creatures as a result of our rational wills.On the other end of the spectrum is the "utilitarians," whose champion John Stuart Mill postulated that one ought to act in a way that promotes the "greatest good for the greater number." Such a view measures an individual's value against the interests of society.In the realms of government and the legal system, there is also a perpetual divide between viewing humans as having an absolute, calculable value, and seeing the value of humans as relative to the impact they have on those around them. The legal system also adds to the relative nature of human life valuing. Values vary widely by state, by county, and by individual juries.For example, why is O.J.-victim Ron Goldman's life worth $8.5 million, the same value assigned to the seven-member Medina family? The answer: Los Angeles County and Bay Area juries give generally bigger verdicts than Kern County juries, and Kern juries give generally bigger verdicts than in San Luis Obispo. "What the jury will award up there for the value of life is a lot higher than it is here," said San Luis Obispo lawyer Steve Hamilton, who specializes in wrongful death and personal injury cases."San Luis Obispo and Tulare counties are in the bottom of the barrel (for big jury verdicts)," Sheets said, citing this area's conservative, affluent, and rural nature as factors.State by state, human life values vary with what state laws allow juries to consider. New York juries can only consider the economic value. California juries can award money for loss of love, companionship, comfort, and society, as well as the economic value of a decedent.California juries can't, however, award money for the grief suffered by survivors, whereas Oklahoma juries can consider economics, grief, and all the other intangibles.Even that value is relative to who is collecting the money."It's important that we identify value to whom, because a person can have value to society far in excess of the value to someone in particular," Scarbrough said. For example, the wrongful death of Mother Teresa would be a big loss to society, but economists and the legal system would probably assign her life less value than the primary breadwinner of a middle-income family. When it is simply economic value of life, experts feel they can do a pretty good job at figuring a person's worth.Litigation Analytics even came up with an overall value of human capital in America right now: $35 trillion. That figure takes into account only the breadwinners in the country's 100 million households and averages $350,000 to $450,000 per person.In other words, a check for $400,000 now, invested conservatively, would be able to provide for an average household through an average life span. Yet such an analysis doesn't deal with a person's unique intangibles.Where Scarbrough's strict economic analysis leaves off is where Robert Johnson's expertise picks up. He is a Palo Alto-based "human life valuer" who takes into account the intangibles in valuing human life.Johnson begins his valuation with federal government studies that have tried to assign a relative value to human life.His methodologies are things like the "willingness to pay" standard, wage-risk studies, and human life values the government comes up with in evaluating regulations."They are designed to capture the value of an intangible," said Johnson.The "willingness to pay" standard tries to evaluate the financial value of preserving a life."If you ask 'how much you are willing to pay to protect your own life?' the number nears infinite," Johnson said.But if you take a more objective, detached view of what one would pay to preserve the life of a stranger, the number comes down a bit. That perspective is what Johnson and other human life value experts call "willingness to pay."Wage-risk studies look at the wages that are required to get people to take high-risk jobs, such as being a firefighter, police officer, or underwater welder. The differential between risky and low-risk jobs is then extrapolated out to give a human life value.So what do Johnson's studies add up to? He said they place a floor value on human life at $1.8 million, and create an average range for human life values of between $3 million and $5 million."In talking to juries, the best we can do is come up with a range," he said. "We talk about a framework they can use, then they just say a little prayer and come up with a figure."Government agencies now place a dollar value on human values, thanks to Ronald Reagan's Executive Order 12291, which mandated "regulatory action shall not be undertaken unless the potential benefits to society from the regulation outweigh the potential costs to society."How can you weigh costs vs. benefits of health and safety regulations unless you assign some value to human life? So the order required agencies to do just that."All the government agencies use this methodology," Johnson said.Other government agencies use a lower standard. The National Highway Transportation Safety Board, for example, has used a minimum threshold of $250,000 per human life for evaluating roadway improvements for the last 40 years.CHANGING VALUES OVER TIMEPlacing an economic value on humans -- while given a big push by lawyers, government, and insurance underwriters in the 20th century -- is not a new endeavor.Perhaps the first major economist to put the value of humans in monetary terms was Sir William Petty back in the 17th century. Petty compared average income levels to the net output of the nation to arrive at a value per person.The math product he got was less important than the effort to place economic value on human life, "from whence we may learn to compute the loss we have sustained by the plague, by the slaughter of men in war, and by sending them abroad into the service of foreign princes," he wrote.While the scholarly approach to human capital has plodded along, its application in other arenas -- government, life insurance, and the legal system -- has exploded.Life insurance companies create detailed actuarial tables outlining the value of life, and plaintiffs attorneys do all they can to use intangibles to jack up the value of life in their cases.A good example of how lawyers have tipped the scales in recent years is cases involving children. How do you place a dollar figure on a dead child, someone who has not yet done anything to give themselves an economic value?"The problem with valuing children is by in large the value to a family of a child is usually negative financially," Scarbrough said.Yet few would argue children are worthless, or that the parents of a wrongfully killed child deserve nothing. Sheets said that courts have traditionally assigned the somewhat arbitrary value of about $50,000 to children.But that has been rising, he said, due in part to the efforts of lawyers to present children as admirable individuals full of infinite potential by bringing in as witnesses teachers, neighbors, church officials, and others who knew the child.FAMILY VALUESLawyers with Young Wooldridge, the firm that brought the Medina lawsuit, said it was their job to present the jury with a portrait of what kind of family this was."I try to present the value of the people that are killed, and that is based on what kind of people they are," said Jim Faulkner, one of the lawyers who tried the Medina case.The lawyer's role then is to orient the jury to thinking about life in monetary terms, something that is a foreign concept for most of us."You have a hard time when 12 people are asked to value life, because it's the first time they've ever had to do it," said Faulkner's co-counsel, Steve Nichols. "I talked about what is love and why it is so important.""What we have to do is go from what they know to the abstract, and to get the concept over," Faulkner said.Faulkner imparts a sense that life is more valuable than money. For example, Air Force guidelines instruct a pilot to bail out when there's trouble with an aircraft rather than wrestling it for control, throwing away a multimillion-dollar plane rather than risking a pilot's life."In some societies, life isn't as valuable," Faulkner said. "But we put a real value on it in this society."In the Medina case, Crop Care Applicators initially offered $800,000, an offer increased to $2 million during settlement hearings, a figure still below their insured amount of $5 million.Medina lawyers sought $10 million to $14 million in compensation, a figure that the lawyers say was based on past verdicts, the devastating nature of the accident, and the Medina family's wonderful intangibles.Nichols, who came up with the figure, said it was based on at least $1 million each for the family members, and more for Lupe."I dealt with this family as a unit," Nichols said. "But Lupe was the glue that held everybody together, so he had more value."Johnson and Scarbrough each discount the importance of past jury verdicts in valuing life because there are too many variables, from the skill of the lawyers to what a judge allows for evidence to the mindset of the jurors."Past verdicts are totally irrelevant because there are so many cases and you weren't there to hear how that life was presented," Johnson said.Scarbrough is also careful to draw a distinction between human life value and jury awards."That isn't the value of a person, it is just based on what you can get out of a courtroom," he said.To get big verdicts out of a courtroom, lawyers need to paint a compelling family portrait that strikes emotional chords with a jury. "In the end, and this may sound crass, it is basically how you package your clients," McKiernan said.A series of touching anecdotes about a person, such as the math-book incident [see sidebar], can help define what kind of person the decedent was. A lawyer who spoke with the Medina jurors after the verdict said the reliance on intangibles made coming up with a number difficult for the jury."It was emotionally draining and it was very hard to quantify these lives," the lawyer said. "Lupe came across as the wonderful individual that he was. He came across as valuable." SIDEBAR: The Testimony of Steven T. Jones"Lupe was sitting behind the counter, reading a mathmatics textbook."I wrote that in a Nov. 8, 1995, column for the San Luis Obispo New Times about Lupe Medina, our neighborhood grocery store clerk who was killed in a head-on collision a few weeks earlier.That column, especially the math book anecdote, made me an expert in valuing human life. Or at least, the Medina family lawyers felt the jury needed to hear my observations of this admirable man.So I went to Bakersfield, testified as a character witness for Lupe, talked about what I wrote in my column, and ultimately helped the jury decide this family was worth $8.5 million.Lupe worked at Shell Beach Market, on the corner by our house, and I would see and talk to him several times a week. He was a casual acquaintance, and our small talk would rarely divulge any personal information.On the night I saw Lupe reading the math book, which I initially assumed was for a college class, I gained an insight into the type of man he was, an insight the jury also got through my testimony."When I asked him about the math book, a shy smile came across his face. No, he wasn't taking a class. He was relearning algebraic equations and other long-forgotten math formulas so he could help his daughters with their schoolwork."You see, he explained, they're getting older and would need help, and he wanted to be the best father he could be."The jury never read those words. Judge Roger Randall sustained a defense objection to admitting the column into evidence, believing its emotionalism to be prejudicial. But the jury heard me talk about the math book story.The Medina girls' teachers also had a lot of stories; so did Abe and Helen Jae, the owners of Shell Beach Market; and Willie Romero, the barber down the street. How much value did each of our stories add to the lives of this family?They say the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and with human beings that holds particularly true. But in assigning a dollar value to human life, the parts are all we have to judge.