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The Value of a Human Life

How does one place a monetary value on life? Some say it cheapens human life to assess a financial value. Our justice system though provides only one remedy in the event that a negligent act results in loss of life, and that is money. So lawyers are often tasked with proving damages in these cases. Judges and juries assess value on that basis. Pennsylvania law divides these cases up into two categories, Wrongful Death and Survival actions. Every state has something similar. Here’s how this breaks down: Wrongful Death: Medical bills Funeral expenses Estate costs Financial support provided by the decedent to family Loss of companionship, affection, guidance, care and moral upbringing Survival: Pain and suffering from the moment of the incident until the time of death Loss of earnings Most of these items can be assessed based on actual numbers, with the help of tax returns, medical bills, etc. Experts testify as to the reasonableness of those numbers and the causal relationship between the trauma and the losses. Loss of companionship, etc. and pain and suffering are far less objective. How would a jury subjectively value these things without actual numbers to guide them? Experts play a big role. There are experts who testify about the nature and extent of pain following a traumatic event. They can even testify about the pain endured by a person who died within moments of the trauma. That suffering, though brief, would be portrayed as the most extreme physical and emotional pain. Lay testimony is also crucial. Family and friends can testify about the decedent’s life and what the death means in a real sense to the spouse and children. These cases generally settle prior to verdict. The lawyers are guided by past jury verdicts in similar cases decided in similar jurisdictions. The closure provided by a settlement is instrumental in helping the family recovery financially and move on emotionally from the most severe of traumas. No one wants to sit though a long trial and appeals that can stretch for years. Wrongful Death proceeds are not taxed by the Department of Revenue. Proceeds from the Survival action are subject to estate tax. To minimize taxes, lawyers propose assessing a large percentage of the recovery to the Wrongful Death claim. This is set forth in a Petition that explains the allocation. The Court rules on the propriety of the allocation.

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