The Dollar Value of Life

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Damages for the loss of enjoyment of life, including general life activities, familial interaction, hobbies, and similar benefits, are referred to as “hedonic damages.”

The term may be new, but the legal concept is not.  Courts have recognized these damages as (i) separately recoverable, (ii) too speculative and not recoverable, or (iii) a component of pain and suffering.  What is new is the attempt to use experts to give a dollar value to this loss by use of mathematical formulas.  Although hedonic damages are recognized by many jurisdictions, the central issue relating to these damages has become whether an expert is allowed to testify to their value.

Of course, in those jurisdictions where hedonic damages are not recoverable, no expert testimony is permitted at all.   In those jurisdictions where hedonic damages are separately recoverable or considered as part of a pain and suffering award, courts are now deciding the extent to which experts are permitted to testify on the topic.

The vast majority of federal courts have barred experts from testifying to the dollar figure of the value of life, stating such testimony is speculative, untestable, unreliable, and does not assist the jury in understanding any facts in issue.  However, many federal courts do allow experts to provide an explanation to the jury about hedonic damages and offer interpretation as to their meaning.  Since state courts often have less stringent expert testimony requirements, it reasons this testimony will be more widely admissible in state actions.

If you are involved in a case where the plaintiff is claiming hedonic damages and seeks to introduce expert testimony on a quantifiable number, there are many federal opinions to support a motion to bar such testimony as speculative, unreliable, and unhelpful to the jury.  You may not be as lucky in state court.  In state courts where such testimony is admissible, you may need to retain your own expert to discredit plaintiff’s expert.  Alternatively, if you are concerned with lending credence to plaintiff’s expert, you could forgo hiring your own expert and rely solely on a rigorous cross examination.

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