Editorial by John Ziegler

The Value of A Life


Now that we are over 100 days removed from September 11th and life has so returned to normal that Congress has gotten back into the habit of placing politics over patriotism, I guess it is now safe to argue over the really tough questions surrounding the attacks. Foremost among these is: How much money is a victim's life worth?

For sake of perspective, my mother's life was apparently worth $880,000, minus lawyer's fees. At least that is what the recently completed total settlement amounted to. This, over seven years after she was killed in a car accident on a dark road in New Jersey in which she was a passenger in a vehicle that struck a flatbed truck. The driver of the truck was in violation of several important traffic laws at the time and was clearly responsible for the crash.

Because my mother, who lived in Washington Crossing, PA, was celebrating her 51st birthday at the time, was not gainfully employed, and was killed instantly, my three siblings and I were "lucky" to receive as much as we did (thanks to excellent legal counsel, which ended up getting one-third of that $880,000). Because I knew that no matter how much we got from all of the respective insurance companies involved it would never be enough to replace the value of my mother, I became quite interested in the formula our society uses to come up with such absurd numbers.

It was with this background that I eagerly anticipated how it was that the government was going to try to estimate the economic cost of those killed on September 11th. Well, now the plan has been announced and, as was predictable, there are a few unhappy and confused people (including some victims of the Oklahoma City bombing where families received about $100,000 each from the government).

While the arrangement to compensate the families of victims is somewhat complex, it basically boils down to each unit receiving an average of about $1.65 million, with a minimum payment of $300, 000 and a maximum of about $3.8 million. The amounts will be determined largely by a victim's family size, age and earnings. In return for the payment, each family will have to agree not sue and their payments could be reduced based on life insurance and pension plans. They would then also be eligible to receive additional monies from charitable organizations, which have already raised a little less than half a million dollars per fatality.

Already, objections are being raised about this model. Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer in charge of the fund, attempted to mollify such concerns by calling it "an unprecedented display of taxpayers' generosity." But even Feinberg admitted that many of the aggrieved families "have different expectations."

Frankly, I am amazed that the authorities are going to endure the political backlash that is sure to ensue from publicly valuing the lives of citizens based mostly on how much money they were making when they died. However, other than the provision for reducing payments for those with large life insurance and pension plans (seemingly an unfair attempt to keep from rewarding the "rich" too lavishly), I strongly support the basics of the proposal.

The key to understanding the justification behind this plan is the realization that it is being funded by the $15 billion bailout of the airline industry (which is just part of the reason this situation can not be fairly compared to Oklahoma City). In order to save the airlines involved from bankruptcy and to keep the legal system out of chaos, it is in our interest to get as many of the families to settle their claims as quickly and fairly as possible.

Because the legal system, for better or worse, rewards the survivors of wealthy victims far more than it does poor ones, there is no other practical way of getting the families of higher earning victims to take the "settlement." While there will inevitably be those who will attempt to play the "class warfare card" in this situation, the reality is that those families of wealthy victims are highly unlikely to even bother tapping into the charitable contribution pool, which can, should, and likely will be distributed on more of an "as needed" basis.

Interestingly, and rather prudently, the authors of this plan have decided to not get involved with the "wild card" of most wrongful death compensation cases: pain and suffering. Because my mother was killed instantly, this was not a factor in our settlements. It has always seemed bizarre to me that had she had somehow lived long enough to say good-bye to her (which would have been worth infinitely more than any settlement), we may have been able to collect exponentially larger damages.

Can you imagine what an impossible task it would be if we tried to determine which victims of September 11th had suffered more than others? At least in this unique circumstance, it is clear that everyone's pain and suffering was same and the price that was paid was very equal.

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