The United States District Court for the District of Montana recently confronted an ongoing controversy in the measurement of wrongful death compensation. While different jurisdictions apply different standards for the compensation of wrongful death plaintiffs, a recurring question is whether damages should include the value of a statistical life. The district court decided that expert testimony regarding the damages was inadmissible.
Facts of the Case
Johnny Gibson was experiencing chest pain, heartburn, pressure between his shoulder blades, and fatigue. He was evaluated by Kimberlee Decker, a nurse practitioner at the federally funded Central Montana Community Health Center (“CMCHC”).
Decker referred Gibson for an ultrasound of his gall bladder. She did not order a heart workup, an EKG, or a stress test. Nor do the medical records suggest that she considered a heart problem as the cause of Gibson’s symptoms.
About a week later, Gibson had a heart attack. He died in surgery. The federal government, which employed Gibson, conceded her negligent deviation from the appropriate standard of care for a patient presenting with Gibson’s symptoms.
Gibson’s wife, children, and estate brought a wrongful death claim under federal law based on medical malpractice. Liability was not contested. The issues at trial involved the damages that the government should pay.
Gibson’s wife testified that Gibson earned between $10,000 and $25,000 per year as a ranch worker and painter. He was often paid in cash or in-kind services (such as free lodging and hunting privileges) that was not reflected on tax returns.
The plaintiffs called Dr. Ann Adair, an Associate Professor of Economics, as an expert witness regarding damages. Gibson was about 63 years old when he died. Adair testified that Gibson would have worked another 4 years. Based on average earnings of Montana farm workers, she calculated his lost earning capacity to be about $150,000.
Sean Black, a CPA, testified as an expert for the government. He calculated lost earning capacity of about $17,000 based on Gibson’s reported earnings prior to his death.
The court accepted the testimony that Gibson’s earnings included unreported income, making Black’s calculation inaccurate. After finding Adair’s methodology to be reliable, the court accepted Adair’s estimate as the most reasonable approximation of lost earning capacity. The court also accepted Adair’s undisputed estimate that the lost value of household services that Gibson provided to his family was about $144,000.
Based on the testimony of Gibson’s cardiac surgeon and family members, the court found that Gibson experienced pain and suffering before his surgery. The court concluded that Gibson would have needed similar surgery and would have experienced similar symptoms even in the absence of medical malpractice. The court awarded only $10,000 for pain and suffering attributable to the failure to diagnose Gibson’s heart condition.
Value of a Statistical Life
The primary disagreement among the experts was whether the plaintiffs were entitled to compensation for the value of a statistical life, in addition to lost earning capacity. The value of a statistical life is not the value of a life, which is incalculable, but the value of reducing risks to life.
Adair testified that the value of a statistical life can be measured under either the revealed preference or stated preference theory. The revealed preference theory measures the extra compensation that workers require to take substantially more dangerous jobs or the amount people are willing to pay for insurance, safety gear, and safer products. The stated preference theory imputes a value from studies that ask individuals what they would do to avoid certain risks.
Adair calculated the value of a statistical life according to guidance provided by the United States Department of Transportation and by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Transportation Department methodology resulted in a value of $9.6 million while the EPA methodology resulted in a value of $7.4 million without adjusting for inflation.
The district court noted that many federal courts “have expressed skepticism” about basing wrongful death damages on the value of a statistical life. Government agencies value a statistical life for the purpose of making cost-benefit decisions about safety measures (such as pollution reduction technology) that reduce the risk of death. The court concluded that the government’s decision-making tools do not provide a reasonable or reliable measurement of damages for a wrongful death. Making a Daubert ruling, the court accordingly disregarded Dr. Adair’s testimony regarding the value of a statistical life.
The court did not explain why Dr. Adair’s methodology was unreliable. It seemed to decide as a policy matter that the value of a statistical life cannot be awarded as damages in a wrongful death case. Curiously, it did so without considering whether controlling law — in this case, Montana state law — would permit an award of damages for the value of a statistical life. Other federal courts might reach a different decision about the reasonableness of an expert’s opinion concerning the value of a statistical life, depending on state court precedent regarding wrongful death damages.