The Price of the Intangible: Lawsuits Should Only Compensate, Never Enrich

Posted on August 28, 2012


How does one put a price on a human life?  Or eyesight, or the use of one’s limbs, or the love of a pet?  How does one put a price on pain, or inconvenience, or distress?

I don’t think you can.

Some weeks ago, The Washington Post ran an article about the 2010 Massey coal mine disaster in West Virginia.  An explosion and subsequent carbon monoxide poisoning killed 29 miners.  The company had a questionable safety record.  And a $209 million settlement was soon reached under the aegis of the Justice Department.  Part of it went toward criminal and civil penalties.  The rest – $46.5 million – went to the families of the dead, and this is on top of $3 million individual settlements that some of the families had already accepted from Massey.

But some families did not accept, because $3 million or $4.5 million was not enough to compensate them for the loss of their loved ones.  The Quarles family, featured in the Post article, called the $3 million figure a “slap in the face,” and added, “They couldn’t pay us enough for our son.”  But this year, ultimately, all of the remaining families settled for undisclosed amounts.  Including the Quarles family.  They are still distraught and in pain.  Massey apologized repeatedly.  Massey paid for the funeral.  Massey paid for the headstone.  Massey offered the $3 million settlement, and ultimately ended up paying the Quarleses – one can assume – a good deal more.  The Quarleses say none of it has made them feel any better.  Patty Quarles told the Post how it had felt to finally settle: on the one hand, she wanted it over with.  On the other, she felt like she had sold her son out.  This was how much he was worth.  She felt sick for reducing her son’s life to a mere number on paper.  “Meaningless millions,” as the Post wrote.  There was no satisfactory price.

This is why I believe that lawsuits should be about compensation only.  Never about enrichment of victims.  If someone needs guide dogs, wheelchairs, lifetime nursing, repeat surgeries, therapy; if someone has lost the ability to earn their previous salary, or even if they have lost a demonstrated potential – yes.  The victim should be made financially whole.  But beyond that, no amount of money will ever unmake a disaster.

The other factor in play is that of criminal liability.  If the goal is to change negligent, damaging behavior, jail time is a great incentive, and we don’t see enough of it.  As it happens, some Massey officials have already been charged and more indictments may be in the offing.   Once a criminally negligent actor has been charged, the company suitably punished, and victims  compensated, that should be sufficient.

Some will argue that large settlements are necessary to punish large, wealthy companies.  I agree, but I think that beyond compensation for the victim’s actual financial damages, the additional cash should go into some other pool of money.  Maybe a fund to compensate victims in cases where offenders can’t pay.  If nothing else, maybe into Social Security or Medicare.  Something useful.  But not to enrich people who have discovered that nothing can fill that terrible hole in their lives.  Meaningless millions indeed.