When my 1L Torts class studies wrongful death, I take the occasion to challenge the notion that money, based on quantified loss, is necessarily the best way to effect a liability award (cf. Prof. Andrew McClurg's gut-wrenching and classic Dead Sorrow). Matthew R. Stevens, '21, posted the following on the class discussion board, and I think it makes a worthwhile complementary observation about tort awards in our age of debt and financial fragility. Reprinted with permission.
Some Thoughts on Wrongful Death Damages
by Matthew Stevens – Friday, January 25, 2019
Professor Peltz-Steele discussed the idea of money damages in wrongful death actions, and their ability to make up for what was lost. He challenged whether they really made that pain any better, and whether a $1,000,000 award helps any more than a $500,000 award. I just wanted to share my thoughts on a possible argument that the monetary damages could help make up for what is lost.
The loss of a family member is surely nothing short of a nightmare. The impending depression, stress, and various other negative emotions can impact someone’s life in irrepressible ways. No earthly remedy could ever truly provide perfect relief for such a loss. I think it could be argued, however, that money is well suited to lessen the impact of the loss.
According to a Case Western study [reported here by CNBC], increased income can actually cause a “reduction in negative emotions” (CNBC, para. 6). Furthermore, the study also found that higher incomes could “reduce the incidence of serious mental illness” (CNBC, para. 6). It is important to note that the study is dealing with annual incomes, and not large lump sums of cash. The study also notes that the increase in happiness shows diminished returns as you reach upwards of $160,000 a year (CNBC, fig. 2). I think this can be reconciled by looking at the damages award as a lump-sum salary. For example, if a father at the age of 40 received a wrongful death damages award of $1,000,000, you could divide that award by the remainder years before retirement (25) to create a net increase in annual income of $40,000. That increased “income” could statistically reduce his negative emotions, and reduce the chances of serious mental illness. An award of $500,000 would surely help, but over time it would not have as big of an effect, only creating an extra $20,000 in annual income. This of course is not a fix-all, but it is certainly a start to fix the unfixable.
Moreover, on the other side of the coin, issues with money statistically causes large amounts of stress. An APA survey in 2014 found that “72 percent of Americans reported feeling stressed about money at least some of the time during the past month” (APA, para. 3). Furthermore, 22% experienced “extreme stress” over money in the past month (APA, para. 3). The study goes even further to explain the types of issues stressing over money creates, including avoiding medical care, and being a major conflict in relationships (APA, para. 5). So then perhaps the increased monetary awards for wrongful death actions could effectively reduce stress in the claimant’s life. With a large influx of cash, it is arguable that a lot of money-induced stress would be taken out of the picture and increasing the claimant’s quality of life.
This of course was a quick look into the idea of monetary damages and their possible ability to remedy the loss of a loved one. I would like to reiterate that I don’t believe money can ever replace the loss of a loved one, but I’m simply saying there is an argument that money helps reduce the net loss of quality of life for the claimant. It does appear that the theory holds some weight, but with its issues: one major issue being the diminishing returns on happiness when income reaches a certain threshold. Perhaps this could be integrated into the analysis more, but I wanted to keep a small scope for the analysis.