The price is wrong

The Madison County Record Sep. 20, 2009, 1:51pm

Fixing a value on a human life is a macabre business. It conjures up the image of a stock boy with his pricing gun walking down the supermarket aisle and slapping labels on neat rows of people instead of products.

Aisle signs might say, "Parents discounted!" "Half off all husbands!" "Buy two children and get a third free!"

However grim, the valuation of life is a necessary preliminary in a wrongful death suit, and formulas exist for calculating the "damage." The loss of a loved one's earnings, benefits, care and companionship, the costs associated with hospitalization and burial – all come into play.

Not surprisingly, the "price tag," even for mortals of modest means, can be substantial.

We wonder what person wants to think that his or her life is worth less than a hundred thousand dollars? What bereaved relatives would accept such a valuation for a loved one whose life allegedly was cut short by someone else's negligence?

Consider the family of Nathaniel Webster. They've asked a Madison County Court to approve a settlement reached with drug manufacturer Merck and Co. -- and "settlement" is the right word for it.

The Webster family is settling for roughly $76,000 in payment for the allegedly wrongful death of Nathaniel, who suffered a myocardial infarction and blamed Merck-made Vioxx.

The agreed-upon full price of settlement is $121,005.02. Once costs, expenses, and attorney's fees are deducted, the family will get $76,418.88.

It begs the question -- how strong was the case against Vioxx?

Or how much would it cost Merck to defend a case as opposed to settling a case? Or are there individuals willing to game the justice system and draw some cash blood in pursuit of a quick payday?

The meagerness of the settlement suggests defendant, Merck, placed on the case what lawyers call its "nuisance value" and moved on.

In this litigious environment we can't blame Merck for opting to settle some questionable cases to get payday plaintiff's lawyers to go away. But it's a sad testimonial to justice and humanity that they have to make hard economic decisions out of fairness to company stockholders and at a cost to consumers who end up paying for the cynical game.

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