If you asked someone what their life was worth, what would they say?
If you asked someone what the value of a wife's household duties were, what would they say?
If you asked someone what the value was of a mother who stayed home to take care of her two small children, what would they say?
What if you asked someone what the value was of a father, in the prime of his life, to his three children in grade school, what would they say?
If someone was earning $75,000 per year and was unable to work for two months, you could easily calculate how much income they lost. But are you able to calculate the lost benefits that man would have received had he continued to work? If he was at work during those two months he would have given that big presentation he was working on for the past year. He'd have done so well that he would have gotten that promotion he was working so hard to get. With that promotion came a larger salary, increased pension benefits, his own parking space, and more importantly, the opportunity to hob-nob with the big-wigs in his company. But since this man was out on disability because he was hit by a car, he was unable to achieve these goals he had set for himself.
What is the value of what this man has lost? The lost opportunity to move up the ladder, the lost opportunity for promotion, the lost chance for more benefits and increased recognition within the company? Can you place a dollar value on these losses?
Let me ask you this- if you own a Picasso painting that is valued at $5 million dollars, and that painting is destroyed in a fire, is there any doubt how much your insurance company should reimburse you for your destroyed property? They must reimburse you $5 million dollars.
Now, using that same argument, if a man earns $75,000 per year and is hit by a car, and he is unable to return to work for two months, the insurance company should have no problem reimbursing him for his lost earnings- 2 months worth. But wait! What if this man, who suffered a broken left leg and right arm is no longer able to do the same type of work he did before his accident? What if his ability to work is now limited? Do you think the insurance company is responsible to pay for this man's lost future earnings compared to what he is earning now? If they're responsible for his lost earnings in the past, shouldn't they also be responsible for his inability to work in the future? What about his limited ability to work? Should they also be responsible for the limited work he can now perform and make up the difference from what he was earning before? The answer is yes.
What if this man was a professional basketball player who earned $5 million dollars a year- not an unreasonable sum of money today for a pro basketball player. Is the driver of the car that hit him responsible if this man can no longer play basketball and his career is over? That 5 year contract, worth a total of $30 million dollars is worthless if this man can't play ball. Who do you think should be responsible for that life-altering accident?
What I've been discussing here are key elements of compensation that an injured victim is entitled to receive in the State of New York. Importantly, we haven't even touched on a victims' pain and the suffering that an accident can have- not only on the injured victim, but on his spouse and family as well.
It is important to remember that compensation is a duty to repay a debt that is owed.
When a person causes an accident or an injury, regardless of whether it was a careless driver, a homeowner who didn't shovel their sidewalk, or a doctor who failed to diagnose cancer, they have now created harm where there was none before. They now owe a debt to the injured victim. Compensation in New York is repayment of that debt. Often that repayment is expensive. The injured victim often requires corrective medical care, the possibility of surgery and extensive physical therapy for rehabilitation. Shouldn't the injured victim be able to pay for the best medical care money can buy? Or do you think it's OK for an injured victim to go to any old city clinic and get whoever is on duty that day to correct a problem that someone else caused?
The compensation I've been talking about here is what is known as "economic damages." These can be calculated. The cost of a housekeeper to do a wife's household duties can be calculated by an economist. The value of a stay-at-home mom can, on some level, be calculated. Lost income and lost future earnings can be calculated. The cost for future medical expenses can be calculated. I don't think many people would argue that these expenses should not be repaid to the injured victim, especially since this is part of a debt that is owed and must be repaid.
What about the "non-economic damages," also known as "pain and suffering." Shouldn't this be compensable too? Remember, we haven't even touched on this subject yet. I've only been discussing the actual economic loss that someone has suffered from an accident or medical malpractice. However, the suffering that an accident causes is often a very large part of any claim. Why? Just think about how an injury affects an accident victim:
Before the accident, Tim used to play catch with his seven-year-old son in their backyard. Because Tim is now in a wheelchair, he can no longer run and play baseball with his son. He can't drive- not the way he used to. Getting into and out of a car is a time-consuming chore that was previously effortless. He has a basement and a second floor in his modest home. Tim can't go into his basement and play ping-pong with his 12 year old daughter. Nor can he walk upstairs to go to bed with his wife anymore. He's had to convert his living room into a modified hospital room. Those front steps to their home have now been converted to a ramp since he couldn't get his wheelchair up those steps. The dinner table had to be cut down to allow Tim to sit at the table with his family, because his wheelchair wasn't high enough to reach the table top. Did I mention that Tim loved to ski and hike in the Vermont mountains? For the rest of Tim's life, he'll never be able to ski or hike again. Tim lives in his wheelchair that has become his home for 18 hours each day. Did you know that because Tim can't feel anything below his waist, he'll get sores on his butt and infections that he won't even know about until it is festering? The doctors tell Tim that he'll need a new wheelchair every five years. "What does a wheelchair cost?" Tim asks.
Tim must face his friends and family every day and explain his new-found limitations in life. Have you considered what will be of Tim's relationship with his wife? Do you think his wife is going to be able to take care of Tim's daily medical needs at home without help? Can she cook, clean, take care of the house and kids and take care of her husband's daily cleaning rituals? How do you take a shower if you can't walk? How do you dress yourself if you can't get to the closet and reach those high shelves with your clothes? What if, God forbid, there is a fire in his home? How does he get out quickly if nobody else is home?
With every accident or malpractice injury there is usually a physical injury that can be devastating. Have you also considered the psychological impact of an injury? Our minds are vigorous and active. An injured victim is often trapped within their body. The emotional toll an injury causes and the psychological after-effects are equally devastating. Yet with all that we know about repaying a debt that is owed, how is a wrongdoer or their insurance company going to repay a debt that cannot easily be quantified?
Well, let's go back to the $5 million dollar Picasso painting. If the value of that painting can be calculated and replaced then why can't the value of human suffering and the indignity it causes? All arise from the same accident or medical wrongdoing. Isn't there some way we can repay that debt too? There is. Unfortunately, since there are no exact numbers for our pain and suffering and every person who is injured is different and experiences a different level of injury, no two cases are exactly alike. Yet pain and suffering is a very real part of a victims' life. There is a way to compensate such a injured man...use the economic damages as a starting point and go from there. The only downside to this is if the injured victim is not working or is very young or very old. In those cases you will not have all of those economic damages to look to when starting your journey in awarding compensation for human suffering. For those cases you must use your common sense and understanding of the human condition in order to reach a full and fair number to compensate a victim for their pain and the suffering they've endured and will endure for the remainder of their life.
Here's an example of a story used in closing argument to explain one way to evaluate pain and suffering:
"$10 MILLION DOLLARS FREE!" THE CLASSIFIED AD SAID
If you thought the ad was true, wouldn't you race out the door to be the first one in line asking for the promised money? What if the ad said that before you could get your "Free $10 Million Dollars" you first had be involved in a head-on car crash? How many people do you think would still wait in line for that free money? I'll bet you there would be some desperate people waiting for that money, regardless of what it took to get it.
What if there were more conditions that you had to meet before you could get that money?
Let's say in addition to getting hit by a car head-on, you had to have been ejected from your car, airlifted by helicopter to the nearest trauma center where you fractured your pelvis, both your legs, were on a respirator for 20 days, you needed surgery to put the broken bones back together with hardware, pins and screws, and were hospitalized for 4 weeks. How many people to you think would still be on line asking for that "Free $10 Million Dollars?" Not many. Yet I'm sure you'd still find a few very desperate souls willing to do most anything for that kind of money.
But wait! Suppose there were even more conditions before you could get your hands on that $10 Million Dollars. Suppose that in addition to the horrendous trauma, lengthy surgery, complications from surgery, being in a medically-induced coma and hospitalized for an entire month, you needed three weeks of rehabilitation therapy where you learned to walk again. Suppose you also couldn't return to your job earning $60,000 per year, and you couldn't play with your children because you could barely walk. Your six-year-old wonders why you can't play soccer and baseball with him, and your 11 year-old asks why you're home during the day instead of being at work. You spend your days watching ridiculous daytime soap operas thinking how you'll support your family since you can't work. Suppose your doctor tells you that you'll never be able to play sports again, and you'll be lucky to walk without a limp. Your job at the loading dock required heavy lifting and there's no way you can lift more than ten pounds now. You doctor says that if you go back to the type of work you were doing before, there's a good chance you'll never walk again.
How many people, given those conditions do you think would stick around asking for that "Free $10 Million Dollars?" I don't think anyone would.
In certain cases, we use this argument in summation to explain to a jury how significant a victims' injuries are and how the money that we're asking for is justified. If a lawyer simply asks a jury to award $10 Million Dollars without providing a background or evidence to support the award, a jury is unlikely to give away such a large sum of money. However, when presented with a reasonable explanation such as the one above, it becomes much easier to understand how such an award can be appropriate.
Importantly, a good attorney will usually understate the value of their case, and once the extent of the injuries become apparent, the jury will (hopefully) recognize that the amount asked for is not sufficient to cover all of the medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering that the injured victim has suffered.
You think you want $10 million dollars? Sure, who doesn't. But if an injured victim asks for that compensation look to see what injuries they've suffered. Only by looking carefully do we see that this certainly isn't a 'windfall' or a 'winning lottery ticket'. Instead it is full and fair compensation.