In wrongful death cases, New York law awards fair and just compensation for the monetary injuries suffered as a result of the unnecessary and untimely death. The law defines the factors that the jury may consider in calculating the value of the lost life. The factors the jury may consider include the age, earning capacity, health, intelligence, and life expectancy of the decedent, as well as the degree of dependency of the distributees upon the decedent and the probable benefits they would have received but for the untimely death (McKee v. Colt Electronics Co., 849 F.2d 46). Although what was lost can never be replaced, monetary damages can help victims' families cope with the loss caused by the negligence of others.
We call upon our jurors, ordinary people, to do extraordinary things. In cases where victims of negligence have been injured, our jurors are asked to put a value on the injury and damage to the victim. In cases where victims of negligence have been killed, we call upon our jurors to put a monetary value on a human life. This is a great responsibility and a difficult task.
Compensation in wrongful death cases is awarded for loss of financial contributions, loss of services, and loss of parental care, advice and guidance.
Loss of Financial Contributions. The jury considers the loss of future earnings and the financial support the victim would have provided to determine the value of the loss of financial contributions. Evidence of past support is used to establish the reasonable expectancy of future assistance.
Loss of Services. The monetary value of the services the victim performed will also be awarded. Any service that must now be replaced, including cleaning, cooking, home repairs, childcare, health care, and household finances, will be considered. To ascertain the value of lost services, the jury takes into account the cost of employing someone else to perform each and every task previously done by the victim.
Loss of Parental Care, Advice, and Guidance. Parents' intellectual, moral and physical training and guidance are extremely important for a child's development. There is no way to truly replace these things, but with the help of the jury, children receive some measure of compensation for this loss. Today, people recognize the "greater and greater dollar value of a human life and the realities of an increasingly complex society where children rely more heavily, and for a greater number of years, on the guidance of their parents" (McKee, Id. at 52).
The components of a wrongful death award reflect an understanding that each victim may have had a family that counted on him for a variety of things. The goal is to compensate these family members and hopefully make it a little easier for them to carry on with their lives after their tragic loss. In a case last year we obtained 4.2 million dollars for the wrongful death of a man in his sixties supporting a wife and five children, several of which were still dependent on him for financial and emotional support. Despite the large award, no one in that family would say it compensated them for the loss of their husband and father. Money is not enough, but it is the only method the courts allow to measure and compensate for harm and loss.
Government agencies are also responsible for determining the value of a human life. To justify costly safety standards, agencies must first calculate how much a human life is worth. According to an article in the New York Times, the Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million, whereas the Food and Drug Administration found that a life was worth $7.9 million (Binyamin Appelbaum, As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret, N.Y. Times, February 16, 2011). Though each agency uses its own formula, they all agree on one thing: the value that ought to be placed on a single human life is increasing.