“Money won’t bring that loved one back…”
We hear this routinely in pretrial research as mock jurors explain why they won’t award for non-economic damages. Variations include “no one paid me for my grief when my mother died” or “I don’t see a need to make the survivors millionaires”. The idea of family members profiting from a death is simply heinous to some and generally, they are immovable. “You can’t put a value on a life.”
There are times though when the story is so horrible, everyone is willing to write a blank check to the plaintiffs. It tends to be in cases involving liability facts as disturbing as the damages facts.
So it was intriguing to see some research on how the victims’ relatives perceive monetary awards for their emotional harm after the death or severe injury of a child, spouse or parent. There are some losses that are universal and so the reality that this study was conducted in Europe does not give us concerns about validity. [As an additional topic, though, there are dramatic cultural differences regarding issues of monetary compensation-- both within regions of the US and between the US and other countries and cultures.] The study was conducted on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Justice to evaluate a bill proposing a “right to financial award in order to provide ‘recognition and satisfaction’ for emotional losses suffered by a narrowly defined circle of close relatives of people killed or severely injured in crimes or accidents for which another person was liable”. The bill explicitly stated that the aim was not to offer “real compensation” as “no monetary award could make up for the harm in question”.
Researchers asked 726 “secondary victims” for their thoughts about these sorts of awards. Their results are touching and in tune with our sense of the desires of family members filing suit for wrongful death.
“Close relatives of fatally or seriously injured tort and violent crime victims perceive a monetary award for the emotional harm they have suffered as a positive response to the death or severe injury of their loved one.
People who have experienced the loss or severe injury of a loved one may be seeking acknowledgement of their emotional losses and a societal recognition that something ‘wrong’ had been done to their loved one.
A modest monetary award may help meet secondary victims’ psychological concerns. That is, money can symbolize acknowledgement to victims’ relatives.”
The ‘symbolism’ idea these researchers talk about is a huge issue for many families involved in litigation over the death or severe injury of a loved one. They want recognition of their loss and of the diminished quality of life for their surviving loved one.
Non-economic damages are often seen as “less important” than the economic damages. What this research says is that financial acknowledgement of loss and responsibility taken by those liable is of critical importance (emotionally) to survivors.
Hulst, L., & Akkermans, AJ (2012). Can money symbolize acknowledgement? How victims’ relatives perceive monetary rewards for their emotional harm. Psychological Injury and Law