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The Value of a Human Life

One case haunts me still, from the days when I was practicing law. The clients were parents left bereft by a tragedy that no mother or father should ever have to face.

A driver in a truck, speeding down a quiet suburban street one warm spring morning, struck and critically injured their 12-year-old son, who was riding his bicycle with his friends. The boy was rushed by ambulance first to the local hospital and then transferred to the city hospital better equipped to deal with injuries so severe. For three long months he suffered in great pain, his anguished parents by his hospital bed, until, on a day in late summer, he died.

A moment of careless haste on the part of a driver in a hurry on his route, and a young life senselessly ends.

Liability was never at issue. But to settle the claims against them, the insurance companies involved naturally required proof of our clients’ loss. We produced it all — the police report, statements of eye witnesses, ambulance and hospital records, medical bills, statements from his attending physicians and nurses, affidavits from family members. Even the diary his mother kept of her son’s final days.

There was something indecent about these negotiations, these efforts to reduce to a dollar figure a human life — as if the impact of the death of a 12-year-old boy on his parents could be calculated down to the last decimal point. My own son was 7 at the time, which made this case particularly hard. It hit too close to home, too close to the heart.

The case left me with unsettling questions: How can we possibly place a value on a human life? Why must judgments and settlements value some lives more highly than others? What dollar amount would represent my loss to my family? Or your loss to yours?

Others ask these questions, too. Over the weekend, Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney and ADR professional known for his work in the 9/11 and Virginia Tech cases, shared his thoughts on the National Public Radio program This I Believe when he asked himself, “What Is the Value of a Human Life?” He describes his own personal struggle as he grappled with his legal training and his conscience and gives the conclusion he reached:

In the case of Sept. 11, if there is a next time, and Congress again decides to award public compensation, I hope the law will declare that all life should be treated the same. Courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries are not the answer when it comes to public compensation. I have resolved my personal conflict and have learned a valuable lesson at the same time. I believe that public compensation should avoid financial distinctions which only fuel the hurt and grief of the survivors. I believe all lives should be treated the same.

Read Feinberg’s essay, and ask yourself the same hard questions.


Diane J. Levin

Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property… MORE >

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