Tort Reform and the Value of Human Life

The Financial Value of Human Life: A Moral & Philosophical Perspective

Value, as an abstract concept, requires the interaction of two entities. Value is imparted on one thing by another, it is a manner of regarding something. It arguably characterizes the relationship between the entities in question. When these entities are human life and the legal system, how value is imparted on the former by the latter bespeaks the relationship between the two, and perhaps bespeaks its shortcomings. There are enormous moral implications regarding the legal disposition applied toward human life and its value. (Auto-valuation, or the value that something imparts towards itself, evidently exists, but is still a manner of 'regarding.' It characterizes the relationship of the thing towards itself.)

It is necessary to first explore the abstract of value and its applicability. Value is not fixed or objective but varies between each entity regarding the object in question. (Each state seems to have affixed a different monetary value to human life, for example). Efforts to quantify value are not usually cumbersome or complex; the grocery store believes that the apple is worth .39, and the public is in accordance with this valuation. Their acceptance is communicated by their willingness to buy .39 apples. Even according living things with a particular value is done with some ease. A pet store values a Labrador puppy at $1,500, and the dog is purchased at this price. But this is not a fixed valuation. A private dog breeder may value the animal's life at $50, and sell it for as much - indicating that there is room for interpretation as to the value of the life of a dog. An owner might contend that the value of a beloved family dog is unquantifiable - priceless. Understanding that the value of a dog's life is subject to a wide breadth of interpretation, all of which are perfectly acceptable, could we then infer that there is an amount which anyone would deem unacceptable? A valuation which fairly exceeds the real value of a dog's life? Is there some amount which hits the dog's absolute cap of value? If there is a limit to the dog's value, this is arguably not financially quantifiable. Yet, if most agree that $50 billion exceeds a reasonable valuation of a dog's life - but $50 does not - then there must be some number in between $50 and $50 billion which is the maximum financial value of the dog. Could it be as low as $500,000, $1 million? Suppose there is a mass solicitation of opinion as to the worth of a dog's life. With an aggregated opinion, enough collective thought and consideration into the matter, perhaps we could obtain a general consensus as to where this maximum sum falls, which fairly and accurately asserts the value of a dog's life.

Recall the owner of the beloved family dog. Assume we offer them this sum in exchange for the dog's life. There is a fair chance the owner would say no, because to them the dog is invaluable and the amount of money offered would not compensate the loss of the dog. This would bring us back to square one, that perhaps the dog's life cannot be quantified or assigned a value. Let's say the dog in question suffers incredible injury. Taking entitlement to recovery for granted, would some portion of this sum adequately compensate the fundamental losses suffered by the animal? In the event of death, would compensation by the total sum, equal to the “objective" value of the dog's life and not a penny more, indemnify the owner's loss? Perhaps not abstractly or emotionally, but he would nevertheless be objectively compensated for the loss of value of his dog's life. Without delving into the moral theory of compensation, we could infer that with that money, he may have access to resources to help him cope with the loss of his dog. We saw how the stakes were exponentially raised when we graduated from the value of an apple to the life of a dog. Now let us consider the heightened stakes of these questions when applied to human life.

Tort & Value of Human Life

Could this same logic be applied to human life? Do we even possess the reasoning faculties to objectively assign a monetary value to our own existence? Is there, as in the case of the dog, an amount so outrageously high so as to be imperatively unacceptable? If I were to ask you: what is worth more, a human life or a trillion dollars? How would you go about answering that? How does one even gauge a human life against a financial sum? Can loss be assuaged by money? These are the questions with which the tort system wrestles. That being said, money and the legal system are human constructs; it almost seems perverse to be quantified by our own constructs.

Is there a limit to the value of human life? Of an injury? Assigning a dollar value to an injury would be a much easier endeavor than assigning a dollar value to greater human life, however, the tort system attempts to do both. From a moral standpoint, it would be wrong for an individual to suffer an injury or the loss of a loved one from the wrongful acts of another, and not receive compensation of any kind. A failure to compensate such an individual might be considered willful neglect of their grievances, on the part of the law.

Therefore, to fairly compensate injury and loss, the legal system is put in the awkward position of determining the dollar value on that most invaluable thing - human life. The legal system itself is an instrument to protect, serve and uphold the dignity of human life. It is strange too, within that same legal system, define a finite value of the thing which it serves, that being human life. Although it is less of a moral quagmire, assigning a value to pain and suffering is likewise difficult. Pain and suffering are legally classified as 'noneconomic loss.' The tort system allows injured parties to bring claims forward against a negligent party so that they may secure compensation for what they have suffered. Torts are civil wrongs, and wrongful death is considered a legal tort for which a claimant may recover damages.

The court classifies two different kinds of monetary damages a plaintiff may receive: economic damages - hard, quantifiable financial loss; and noneconomic damages - physical and emotional losses, as mentioned. Punitive damages are another category, however, they are not awarded to plaintiffs. They are a sum which the defendant must pay as punishment. Jail time is usually off the table for noncriminal tort cases.

Medical Malpractice Damage Caps

Placing a value on human life became a key endeavor of tort reform. The perceived medical malpractice crisis drew attention to the exorbitant damage payouts present in some malpractice (and personal injury) suits. The overall cost of these suits weighed heavily on the legal system and created certain negative ripples elsewhere (like liability premiums). Lawmakers were inclined to rein in the costs of tort suits by overhauling the tort system; the chief means of doing so seemed to be the implementation of damage caps. The acceptance of a finite value of human life is intrinsic to the legal concept of damage caps. Under the law in most states, there is a fixed monetary amount which no amount of suffering is understood to exceed. That sounds a little Orwellian, doesn't it?

In cases of wrongful death, there is also a fixed amount which the value of human life does not exceed. Every state has taken a variant approach to noneconomic damage caps. Many chafed when Texas capped non-economic damages at $250,000, one of the lower figures in the nation. Ruled unconstitutional in a handful of states, damage caps were found to potentially deprive claimants of rightful damages, because they already presuppose the extent of the damage, with no particulars of a case taken into account.

The legal valuation of human life itself has been asserted by different legal entities and been subject to change. Like the price of everything else, it seems the value of human life keeps going up. This does not mean that the value of human life will translate into noneconomic losses for grieving family members. Where the tort system is concerned, it seems the value of human life and suffering have never been held in a lower regard. The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency values human life at $9.1 million. In 2008, the FDA valued human life at $5 million, today their figure sits at $7.9 million. [1] Although there is a discrepancy between government agencies, these are worlds away from the figures employed in the government's tort system.

One rule takes a rather evenhanded approach to this issue in wrongful death suits, that being the pecuniary loss rule (valuation of human capital). [2] This approach does not presume that monetary damages will compensate the emotional suffering of losing a loved one. Instead, the court calculates the only aspect of human life with an objective, associated dollar figure: earning potential. The victim's family is then compensated with the amount of money that the victim could have earned and provided for them. Loss of earning potential falls into the category of economic damages, and the question still remains as to how the court could really quantify noneconomic losses.

Ameliorating harm by offering money seems like an unsavory concept. But in the absence of any other objective universal compensation, monetary compensation for harm is the only viable avenue. Family members in a wrongful death suit cannot be compensated with their lost family member. An injured claimant who loses function of a limb cannot be compensated with returned function of that limb. The court may merely provide them with financial damages, theirs to allocate as they please.


[1] Appelbaum, Binyamin. "As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret." The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Feb. 2011. Web. 31 May 2017.

[2] White, Jonathan, and Jeff Hobday. "Victim Compensation and Wrongful Death Damages." Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 31 May 2017.

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