NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Pricing Human Lives

June 4, 1999

When an airliner crashes and people are killed, lawsuits can drag through courts for years. One source of delay is reaching an agreement on the monetary value of each life lost.

The basic formula for what a victim is worth, says Conrad Berenson, a retired professor who testifies on the subject, is future earnings minus taxes and expenses.

Then there is also the valuation of the momentary pain of the victim. In the case of Korean Air Flight 007, which was shot down by a Russian fighter plane, it took the craft 12 horrifying minutes to crash.

What is clear is that settlements and awards vary greatly.

  • In the 1988 downing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, cases filed in New York were settled for $575,000 -- but one brought in Florida and tried under Scottish law awarded the plaintiff $2 million.
  • A federal appeals court will soon hear arguments as to whether TWA Flight 800 crashed in U.S. or international waters -- a determination which could change settlement terms by a factor of 10, according to experts.
  • The family of a neurologist killed in a Chicago crash got $7 million -- while the estate of a childless furniture salesman who died in the same crash only received $118,000.
  • In 1993, a court ruled that an adult son who lost his father in the Korean Air crash should receive $500,000 for loss of companionship -- but another court four years later ruled that a woman who lost a brother in the same crash was entitled to nothing.

Source: Thomas Easton, "Human Values," Forbes, June 14, 1999.


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