Clearly, no value can be put on a human life. When a family member or friend has died in a tragic accident, a lawsuit settlement or jury victory will not bring them back or restore their future. That said, monetary settlements are the way our court system deals with such deaths, and when the victim is responsible for supporting a family, financial rewards are completely justified. So it’s always a difficult undertaking when government agencies attempt to put a specific value on a human life. But if you look closely, California courts are particularly guilty of undervaluing lives lost in medical accidents.

In a recent story for the New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum reports that a number of federal agencies have effectively put a price on human life. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the value at $9.1 million, the Food and Drug Administration at $7.9 million, and the Transportation Department has valued human life at $6 million. But a little known California law, the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), stipulates that for medical errors that result in wrongful death, families can only be awarded a maximum of $250,000.

What’s worse is that courts are not permitted to inform juries that the maximum monetary award for medical errors resulting in wrongful death is $250,000. So if a jury decides on a higher penalty, the sum will later be automatically reduced to $250,000. And it only applies to hospital errors. If the same doctor ran over a pedestrian at an intersection, for example, courts would not be bound by the same $250,000 wrongful death penalty limit. Here’s how J.G. Preston of Protect Consumer Justice describes MICRA:

The law uses the technical legal term “non-economic damages” to characterize what is capped. It’s a clinical-sounding term that really means, in cases like Delaney’s, the value of a human life. In other cases where the MICRA cap applies, “non-economic damages” means the value of the ability to walk, if you are left paralyzed by medical negligence…the value of being able to have a child, if you are left sterile by medical negligence…the value of living a normal pain-free life, if you are left in agony by medical negligence…the value of going into the world without being stared at or having people turn away from you, if you are left horribly disfigured by medical negligence.

Clearly, no sum can compensate for the life of a family member. But above and beyond the emotional impact of losing a loved one, the family should be entitled to significant economic damages if a father, mother, daughter, or son is killed in a medical accident beyond their control. Since California has a strong track record of valuing the lives of its citizens, it is surprising that it would value the lives of people killed in medical accidents so much lower than other federal agencies.

Photo credit: Jose Goulau