The heirs of two young women, cousins ages 35 and 25, who died in the same accident in Hawaii were awarded a total of $15.4 million dollars in a personal injury settlement. The heirs of one of the women received just under $15 million, and the heirs of the other just $425,000.00. This begs the question: if the women are both young, healthy, and facing a long life ahead of them, how could the “value” of their lives be so starkly different?
This unfortunate tragedy highlights how personal injury cases are valued in the eyes of the law. First, the true value of a life is worth far more than what is ever available in an injury case. Here’s an illustration of that point. If you were visiting the Louvre in Paris and there was a fire, and before you was the Mona Lisa, a painting with a value of $100 million. Standing next to the Mona Lisa was a person needing help to exit the museum. As the fire grew, you could save the person or the Mona Lisa but not both. Which would you choose? You see, there isn’t enough money in the world to compensate families for the loss of a loved one.
But in the context of a wrongful death case, the law requires that the life be given a monetary value, and provides some guidelines as to how that value should be calculated. As a starting point, the person who died does not have his or her own case. The case is that of the heirs, and, generally speaking, the closer the heir the more valuable the case. A young spouse and minor children tend to be considered more valuable than an elderly spouse with grown children. Probably because wrongful death damages are prospective looking, asking, “what kind of future is being lost by the death of the decedent?” Most would agree that a young child losing a 35-year-old mother, is greater than a 55-year-old child losing an 85-year-old mother.
This reality was probably at play in the Hawaii case. The 35-year-old victim, Elizabeth Brem, left behind a husband and two children below the age of five, while it appears the 25-year-old, Paula Ramirez, was unmarried with no children (this is just speculation from the news stories). Accordingly, the plaintiffs in the case were the husband and children of Ms. Brem, and likely the parents of Ms. Ramirez.
The primary reason for the disparity in the outcome of the case is most likely because of the “economic damages.” That is, the future loss of income. Ms. Brem was a highly trained lawyer at a large international law firm. At only 35, she had many productive years ahead of her earning a high salary, much of it going to support her household. Those earnings are now lost because of her death. While the news doesn’t describe what Mr. Ramirez did for a living, if she wasn’t using her income to support the plaintiffs (probably her parents), then her case would likely have no economic damages. Thus, the widely differing values.
Walton Law Firm has handled numerous wrongful death cases, and has had to explain this reality to clients many times. While there is no amount of money in the world that can truly compensate a family member for the loss of a loved one, California wrongful death law requires that a value be placed.
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