How ‘Full Value of Life’ is Determined in Wrongful Death Actions

How does one calculate the dollar value of a human life? It is largely up to the discretion of the court.
In settlements of wrongful death cases, the immediate family of the decedent may receive monetary damages in Virginia. This can be the surviving spouse, children of the deceased and children of any deceased child of the deceased. If there is no spouse or children, the parents, brothers and sisters of the deceased may file a claim for wrongful death.  How does one calculate the dollar value of a human life? It is largely up to the discretion of the court.

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“Although judges and juries are guided by state laws in wrongful death lawsuits, the value of a person’s life and the effect his death has on his loved ones is incalculable. Therefore, judges and juries have flexibility in deciding how much to award in monetary and non-monetary damages,” wrote retired Judge Anthony P. Calisi. “Often their verdicts are based more on the emotional, non-monetary aspects of a case than the monetary ones.”
Under Section 8:01-52 of the Virginia Code, the jury or the court may award what it deems “fair and just” damages. These include, but may not be limited to, damages for:

  1. Sorrow, mental anguish, and solace, which may include society, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice of the decedent;
  2. Compensation for reasonably expected loss of income of the decedent and services, protection, care and assistance provided by the decedent;
  3. Expenses for the care, treatment and hospitalization of the decedent incident to the injury resulting in death;
  4. Reasonable funeral expenses; and
  5. Punitive damage for willful or wanton conduct, or such recklessness as evinces a conscious disregard for the safety of others.

The court shall apportion the costs of the action as it shall deem proper.
Cases become even more complex when the wrongful deaths are the result of a large-scale, tragic event like the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A New York Times article about determining compensation from the generous 9/11 Fund for families of the 9/11 victims quoted Chicago economist Stan V. Smith, who argued that the loss of daily experience is as deserving of compensation as the loss of work. Smith coined the term “hedonic damages” for lives and experiences lost “We value our being far more than we value our doing,” he said. The law creating the Sept. 11 fund provided for such damages, but, so far, few states recognize the notion of putting a dollar amount on enjoyment of life as a consideration in wrongful death cases.

Remember: every case is different, and case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case.  Case results in one case do not guarantee or predict a similar result in any future case.
Craig Follis has extensive experience in litigation, negotiating and settling suits, and providing legal opinions on liability and insurance coverage. You can reach him at 888-703-0109 or via email at

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