Wrapping paper: $5.00 Holiday lights: $25.00 Cookie ingredients: 15.00 Christmas morning with the family? Priceless
Master Card is responsible for one of the best known advertising schemes of the past decade. With heartwarming precision, the company expresses the idea that the most valuable things in life cannot be quantified by a dollar amount or any other standard unit of measurement. Their catch phrase, "there are some things money can’t buy" is a true but often overlooked statement that has become a platitude in modern culture. However, when considered closely, it has much more weight and applicability than you may initially realize.
To put this in context, let’s look at an example. Thousands of people live every day in need of kidney transplants. To them, these organs are priceless. Many patients and their families consider viable kidneys to be the most valuable kinds of commodities in the world. However, there are laws prohibiting the sale of kidneys and other organs for precisely this reason. When one’s life is on the line, the price market becomes a tool of corruption that can be abused by those who control the desired goods. You cannot put a price on a kidney, and by extension you cannot put a price on a human life. People cannot be sold, so neither can organs.
Looking at this concept from another angle, it is easier to understand why compensation levels are difficult to determine in cases of serious injury. The same principle that precludes the sale of organs- placing a price on parts of one’s body- complicates the process of deciding how much you should be paid after suffering an injury. You may have heard terms like "quality of life" and "pain and suffering", which are vague and not easily quantifiable. What defines your quality of life? If you suffer chronic pain or loss of limb, are you entitled to $10,000 or $5 million?
Before any of these questions can be considered, you must know who is liable, if anyone. Liability refers to an obligation that legally binds an individual or company to settle a debt. Being liable means that a party is responsible for compensating you for wrongful act they may have committed. For example, if you are stopped at a red light, and another car hits you from behind, sending your car into the intersection, the driver of that car is most likely liable for your injuries and damages to your vehicle. The same can be said for many individuals or groups who bring about conditions that lead to an accident because of their negligence or recklessness. This goes for property owners in "slip and fall" accidents, medical professionals in malpractice cases, and anyone whose behavior causes you harm for which you are not responsible.
When a party is determined to be liable, the next step is determining what compensation you deserve. In other words, how much should you be able to collect in damages? Most states have laws that set guidelines for what a victim can recover in a lawsuit. Often the amount will vary based not only on the extent or type of injury, but also on the liable party’s ability to pay. This is a problem that often occurs when uninsured drivers are involved in accidents.
In Minnesota, damages are governed by a general set of laws. For bodily injury, a plaintiff can collect lost wages, diminished earning capacity, costs of medical care, pain, and suffering. In a lawsuit alleging intentional misconduct, the plaintiff can often recover punitive damages in addition to any awards for injuries, pain, and suffering. Punitive damages, which are designed to punish unlawful acts, are often very large amounts. For many years, there were few limits to punitive damages, but recent tort reform initiatves have changed this standard. Although new laws cap punitive damages in certain types of cases, a plaintiff may still recover additional compensation if injuries were intentionally caused by the liable party.
All of this information still fails to answer the questions, how much is your body worth? The value of your case is not based on the amount sued for. A plaintiff with $10,000 worth of medical expenses can sue for $1 million. This does not mean a jury will have to award that amount if they decide in your favor. If there is no agreed settlement, the case value is established by the trier of fact, which is usually the jury, but could also be a judge or arbiter. Based on the facts, juries determine the percentage of fault that can be attributed to the defendant, the amount you may have lost in wages, and the extent of your suffering, among other factors. These factors are usually considered on an individual basis. The amount you recover is based on the sum of these amounts. The jury may then reduce that amount to match the percentage of fault they attribute to the defendant.
For example, imagine you were crossing the street and were hit by a speeding driver. As the pedestrian, you had the right of way, but the jury believes you were walking outside the crosswalk lines. However, the driver was going too fast and showed no regard for public safety. The jury determines that your injuries and suffering are worth $1 million, but also finds that the driver was 90% at fault since you were too close to the intersection. The verdict is then $900,000.
The bottom line is that there is no surefire method of determining how much your injuries are worth. Juries can base their verdicts on the costs you have already incurred and estimates of future expenses or lost wages, but the question of your personal suffering is not legally set at a certain amount. There is no empirical equation juries can use to decide the cost of someone’s pain. While this makes it very difficult for injured victims to know what they can expect to recover after an accident, it also prevents our society from assigning general price tags to human lives.
There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, well, you know the rest.
As a partner with Bradshaw & Bryant, Joe Crumley has over 20 years experience with the firm—helping injured people and their families to secure just and fair compensation. Excelling in personal injury litigation, Mr. Crumley has secured numerous record-setting verdicts and settlements and won accolades such as MTLA’s “Trial Lawyer of the Year” and “Excellence” Awards.