How much is a life worth? More than $250,000?
Friday, February 18, 2011
What is the “price tag” you would put on a human life? It’s not a pleasant question to contemplate, but we need an answer because of the practical real-world decisions that need to be made. How much would you need to be paid to accept a dangerous, possibly life-threatening job? How much should drug and product manufacturers spend to make life-saving modifications? How should a jury compensate the family of the victim of wrongful death?
A story by New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum looks at how various federal government agencies answer the question, an answer that affects what they require from the industries they regulate.
The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million [see Page 7-6, footnote 8] last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration.
The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims.
The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.
And the numbers may keep climbing. In December, the E.P.A. said it might set the value of preventing cancer deaths 50 percent higher than other deaths, because cancer kills slowly. A report last year financed by the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.
Regardless of which, if any, of those answers you feel is the “right” value for a human life, contrast it to the answer the California Legislature has come up with for the value of a human life:
No more than $250,000.
That’s the cap that was imposed in 1975 under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA. That’s the law that fixed the value of your child, your elderly parent, your stay-at-home spouse, at a maximum of $250,000, even though a jury has found that your loved one died through no fault of their own as the result of medical negligence–not because of the “luck of the draw” or an unfortunate medical condition, but because of an avoidable mistake by a medical professional trained to know better.
That’s all California law says a 16-month-old girl is worth, as Jodi and Daniel Gonzalez found out when their daughter Delaney died in a hospital after a breathing tube was wrongly set up to pump air into her stomach, instead of her lungs. The lack of oxygen caused irreversible brain damage that led to death. Here’s Delaney’s story told by KCBS-TV (CBS2) in Los Angeles.
What may strike you as odd is, Delaney’s life could have been worth more than $250,000 if she hadn’t died at the hands of medical professionals. Or, rather, if she hadn’t died at the hands of medical professionals practicing medicine. If Delaney had died because one of the very same medical professionals responsible for her death in the hospital had been drunk, run a red light, and crashed into a car that had Delaney as a passenger, a jury would have no restrictions on how to assess the value of her life.
But because she died as a result of medical negligence, California law says her life is worth a maximum of $250,000. A jury could award more than that, but juries aren’t allowed to be told about MICRA when deliberating. Any award above $250,000 would be automatically reduced to $250,000 under the law.
The law uses the technical legal term “non-economic damages” to characterize what is capped. It’s a clinical-sounding term that really means, in cases like Delaney’s, the value of a human life. In other cases where the MICRA cap applies, “non-economic damages” means the value of the ability to walk, if you are left paralyzed by medical negligence…the value of being able to have a child, if you are left sterile by medical negligence…the value of living a normal pain-free life, if you are left in agony by medical negligence…the value of going into the world without being stared at or having people turn away from you, if you are left horribly disfigured by medical negligence.
MICRA also places a higher value on some lives than on others. Rich people are worth more. The law does not put a cap on “economic damages,” which includes past and future income lost due to death or injury caused by medical negligence. That means damages awarded for negligence affecting a high-earning surgeon or a well-compensated insurance company executive will be higher than damages awarded for the exact same negligence involving a minimum-wage worker, an elderly retiree, a husband or wife who doesn’t work outside the home, or a child whose future earning potential is not knowable.
Binyamin Applebaum’s article in The Times about federal agencies increasing their assessment of the value of a life included this: “Several independent experts…said that the increases were long overdue, noting that some agencies had been using the same values for more than a decade without adjusting for inflation.” [emphases added]
More than a decade? The value of Californians injured by medical negligence has been the same for more than 35 years. That’s because the cap spelled out in MICRA includes no provision to adjust for inflation. As the cost of living has increased, that $250,000 in 1975 would be equivalent to about $1 million today. Looked at the other way, if the Legislature were to enact a financially-equivalent cap today, it would be just over $60,000.
As the value of a human life.