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A Philosophical Question About Compensatory Damages

I thought that this case, ripped from the pages of the IJ, would be appropriate given the discussion between Jonathan Wilson and Clay Conrad below. Let's push the debate further -- should there be a rational link between compensatory damages and economic harm? I realize that looking at a sample of one to make broad generalizations is not good science, but here goes anyway...

Suppose a teenager attempts suicide by overdosing on 300 aspirins. Suppose further the physicians treating the teenager actually make a medical medical mistake which results in the death of the teenager. What should the damages be? From an economic perspective, the teenager essentially thought his future was worthless. However, we can discount this belief to some extent because of mental illness (i.e. You must be mentally ill as you otherwise wouldn't kill yourself). How about pain and suffering? If one attempts suicide isn't the pain and suffering the attemptee's responsibility? Or loss of enjoyment of life? Is it appropriate to compensate the teenager for pain and suffering since he was, at the very least, also at fault? In addition, the issue of mental illness would likely discount the future earnings depending on how severe the illness was or how expensive it is to treat. All of this presumably should be part of the forensic economic testimony.

Finally, the parents of the teenager have a separate case and they seem to be the ones injured as they are the ones who lost their child.

Find out what the jury said by clicking on continue reading.

The case settled (seconds?) before the verdict (so we don't know the actual settlement), but we do have the jury's proposal which found:

  • The teenager had lost nearly $1.8 million in future earnings by dying at 16.
  • The teenager had suffered a loss of enjoyment of life at $217,500
  • The teenager had suffered pain and suffering before he died at $21,750.
  • The parents had suffered over $300,000 each for mental distress, medical expenses and loss of enjoyment with their son.

Ideally, compensatory damages should reflect the economic loss to the family and society, but in our zeal to make sure that everything is compensable, we often overlook the fact some people do not value ex ante the things for which they receive ex post compensation. No one, for example, buys punitive damage insurance or pain and suffering insurance to cover losses occuring in their everyday activites. However, these warranties come bundled into the price of our products and services because of comepensation law. What we see consumers buying is health insuance, life insurance, and disability insurance--none of which covers pain and suffering or punitive damages.



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.