It's a Wonderful Life: The Case for Hedonic Damages in Wrongful Death Cases
60 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2010 Last revised: 15 Oct 2012
Date Written: 1990
What is a human life worth? The philosophical answer, echoed in literature throughout the ages, is that life is priceless. The answer under the American tort system is “zero.”
Wrongful death systems in the U.S. do not attach any value to life itself. Rather, the value of human life is calculated largely by the value of the monetary and service contributions that the deceased tort victim could have been expected to give to her dependents, minus her personal consumption expenses, had she lived. This is known as the “pecuniary loss rule.”
The primary thesis of this article is that life does have independent value, far greater than simply what people earn and give to others. There is value to working at one’s chosen occupation, to loving, to laughing, to walking on the beach, to watching the sun set, and to all of the other activities that make up the pleasure of living.
The article asserts that, by failing to account for the value of life itself, current wrongful death statutes are discriminatory and result in the substantial undervaluation of the human life among large groups of society, including children, elderly people, and low-wage earners. The author asserts that wrongful death law in America be amended to allow damages for the lost value of human life, sometimes called “hedonic damages,” as a means of promoting both the general deterrence and corrective justice goals of tort law.
One of the earliest articles exploring hedonic damages, It’s a Wonderful Life has been extensively cited by courts and legal scholars.
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