Fatal Accidents: Calculating the “Value of a Life”

Jarrett & Price LLCHow do you put a monetary value on a person’s life? That question seems impossible to answer, or even absurd. But it is the method Georgia courts use to calculate money damages in cases where someone has died due to the fault of another. Nothing will ever bring the deceased victim back to their families. However, the victim’s surviving spouse and children (or other relatives depending on the circumstances) are entitled to money damages equal to the “value of the life” of the decedent. These are known as wrongful death damages.

Calculating the value of a person’s life is a question for the jury in Georgia. By its very nature, obtaining this value involves a tremendous amount of subjectivity and speculation. The law requires the jury to consider both the estimated “economic” loss due to the person’s death, as well as the “intangible value” of their life. When considered together, these two components comprise the total value of the life which is the amount of the wrongful death damages.

Economic Value

The first component of calculating the value of the life is the economic loss. Essentially, the jury is asked how much would the deceased have earned in their lifetime had they not died. Usually, an expert witness known as an “actuary” is asked to testify at trial to aid the jury in calculating these estimated losses, but in the end it is a question for the jury. The jury can consider the decedent’s current earnings, potential raises due to promotions, plans for the future, life expectancy and use “common experience” to determine the economic value of a life. Naturally this is more difficult to calculate if the deceased is a child or young person with no working history. It also means this value is often highest for decedents who earn more money in their careers, and for decedents with more of their working lives ahead of them.

Intangible Value 

A far more subjective component is the “intangible value of the life.” This value is left up to the “enlightened conscious” of the jury. In other words, the jury is given complete discretion to place a dollar value on this component of the damages. The central question is, what was the value of the life of the decedent to him or her at the time of death.

Naturally, this is a major “x-factor” when placed into the hands of the jury. The jury may consider a wide range of evidence, such as the general quality of life of the deceased, the quality of their family-life, the activities and hobbies they enjoyed, their role in the community, just about anything a jury could consider in quantifying the value of the life that was lost. Because this value essentially asks jurors to place a dollar amount on the value of a human beings life, the damages are often in the millions of dollars no matter the age or economic status of the deceased.

Calculating the value of the life is the exclusive method of awarding damages in a wrongful death action. These damages usually flow to the surviving spouse and children, however, if there is no spouse or children the deceased’s parents or other relatives are the beneficiaries of the damages. When a fatality occurs, there are also other damages available to the victim’s estate, such as pain and suffering and punitive damages in certain cases. For an explanation of all available damages in fatality cases, click here.

If you have lost a loved one due to the fault of another, you need to speak to an experienced trial attorney to learn whether you are entitled to money damages. Contact Jarrett & Price for a free consultation by calling (912) 999-2599 or (706) 770-6669 – (912) 999-2599 and an attorney will return your call. We represent clients throughout southeast Georgia at our Savannah office location. We also represent clients throughout northeast Georgia with offices in Clarkesville, Georgia and Cleveland, Georgia.


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