Dollars and Death

57 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2004

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Eric A. Posner

University of Chicago - Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: August 2004


Administrative regulations and tort law both impose controls on activities that cause mortality risks, but they do so in puzzlingly different ways. Under a relatively new and still-controversial procedure, administrative regulations rely on a fixed value of a statistical life representing the hedonic loss from death. Under much older law, tort law in most states excludes hedonic loss from the calculation of damages, and instead focuses on loss of income, which regulatory policy ignores. Regulatory policy also disregards losses to dependents; tort law usually allows dependents to recover for loss of support. Regulatory policy generally treats the loss of the life of a child as equivalent to the loss of the life of an adult; tort law usually treats the loss of the life of a child as less valuable. Regulatory policy implicitly values foreigners as equal to Americans; tort law does not. We argue that both areas of law make serious mistakes in valuing life and that each should learn from the other. Regulatory policy properly focuses on hedonic loss from death, and tort law should adopt this approach. But regulatory policy should imitate tort law's individualized approach to valuing the loss from death, including its inclusion of losses to dependents. If these changes were made, tort awards would be more uniform and predictable, and regulations would be less uniform and more stringent. In addition, average tort damages for wrongful death would be at least twice as high as they are today. With respect to dollar judgments for mortality risks, a pervasive issue is how to combine accuracy with administrability and predictability; both bodies of law could do far better on this score.

Keywords: statistical life, tort law, regulatory policy, dependents

JEL Classification: K13

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R. and Posner, Eric A., Dollars and Death (August 2004). AEI-Brookings Joint Center Working Paper No. 04-15;U of Chicago, Law & Economics Working Paper No. 222. Available at SSRN: or

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

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Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

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Eric A. Posner

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

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773-702-0730 (Fax)


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