The value of human life, a quantum that has confounded mighty sages for millennia, now has been calculated to the penny--by two Californians and an Apple II computer.
Real value, that is. Never mind such banal reckonings as the going price for a cadaver's-worth of chemicals, or vague do-gooder hooey such as service to one's fellow man. And forget about gossamer intangibles like the way the soul surges when first dawn, pale and hopeful as the promise of love, suffuses the treescape, attended by birdsong. Try sticking that in your automated teller.
No, we're talking hard cash here, the bottom-line total of a lifetime's income--the kind that makes you kneel right down in your Hickey-Freeman and murmur, "Thank you, Paine Webber." Big, round six- and seven-digit figures of the sort increasingly in demand by the nation's litigation mills. Thanks to the recent burgeoning of liability law and the lavish hazards of modern life, personal-injury and wrongful-death actions are a boom industry, and courts are handling more suits than Sy Syms.
Say you're a deceased gent whose elevator failed to stop--at about 50 consecutive floors. Your family will sue for sure; but for how much? What would you have earned if you'd taken the stairs and lived to your appointed slot in the actuarial tables? Or say a semi rolled over your Subaru, generally rearranging both your gizzard and your employment future. The injuries limit you to part-time work, and you face years of medical treatment. What's the long-term loss worth in one wad this week?
Help is only a WATS-line away. Legal Economic Evaluations Inc. of Palo Alto ("The Answers You Needed Yesterday in Minutes Today") will take the victim's vital statistics over the phone, send them slithering through a few microchips and the company's special software, and minutes later provide the attorney with a sort of double-entry "This Is Your Life": What you're worth, F.O.B. Shady Grove Funeral Home, to the last dismal decimal in the old cash nexus.
"What we do," says Brent Danninger, 24, the firm's cofounder and software developer, "is called litigation economics--putting a value on human life for the courts." Traditionally, trial lawyers handle this gloomy chore by engaging an expert witness, often a PhD in economics. He calculates the victim's lost wages, fringe benefits, Social Security and so forth, adjusts them for future inflation, projected salary increases and pension payout, factors out the amount spent on personal consumption, and expresses the result in current greenbacks. "If you get a university professor," says Danninger, "he'll charge you between $500 and $3,000 for a one-page report and then just say, 'Call me if you have any questions.'
"But we provide an 8-to-15-page report, bound, with color graphics, for $150. And we can do it in an hour!"
The firm's three Apples are gorged with national and state data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Commerce Department, U.S. Center for Life Statistics and a plethora of academic studies. "They'll spit out your life expectancy to the day," says cofounder Robert W. Johnson, 35; and for an added charge, LEEI's economists will back up the figures in court.
Say you're a 34-year-old Caucasian male earning $28,754 as a machinist until crippled by an injury. You're forced to take a less-active job at $18,500 and face several years of medical payments for drugs and rehabilitation. Call LEEI, and they'll genially inform you that you've got 40.16 years left to live and 28.65 in which to work, amounting to a net loss of $367,069 in wages and benefits and $49,608 in medical bills--a total of $416,677, not counting whatever mega-shekels you might get in "non-economic" damages for pain, suffering and whatnot. Fees range from a mere $60 for a computer analysis of your settlement plan to $100 for pension valuations to $150 for the full life-earnings workup.
In Washington, Johnson says, your average 25-year-old female secretary earning $15,000 a year can expect to chalk up $550,765 before greeting the Reaper; a male electrician making $25,000 at 35 would hit $724,213, a 40-year-old male middle manager being paid $50,000 would clock in at $1,242,060. In each category, women tend to come out lower: Although they live longer, they work shorter. Statistically speaking, Johnson says, the male electrician has 27.6 work-years left. His female coworker of the same age has between 20.8 and 26.8 years if married; if separated or divorced, she will work as long as the man.
Such simple exercises scarcely tax the Apples. The tough cases are full of exasperating ambiguities: People who went back to school to switch careers and then got killed; self-employed folks whose fringe benefits may exceed their dollar incomes; 6-month-old babies. LEEI's ecumenical software embraces them all. For infants, Johnson examines the family history, determines whether the child would have attended college, and fixes a likely income potential based on regional averages. Totals tend to be higher, he says, in the Northeast and West Coast, lowest in the mid-South. And the victim's race can affect the final sum: Black teen-agers, for example, may come out below their white peers, since they are statistically less likely to enter higher education; but a black male from 55 to 60 will out-total his white counterpart because he'll live longer.
"We even did a house-husband," Johnson says. "In fact, he was killed on his way back from shopping." Technically speaking, the man was unpaid. But thanks to value-of-services figures from the Department of Agriculture, Johnson pegged the domestic decedent's yearly earnings at about $12,000.
Few judges cavil at the cybernetic wampum-count. "Actually," Johnson says, "it tends to have greater credibility than a putatively animate economist because at least they know the math is right." Still, one defense lawyer tried to use the computer issue to badger Johnson in court. "He said, 'Oh! So you've never seen the client, then? In fact, isn't it true that you've never seen most of your clients?' I said, 'Yes--because most of them happen to be dead.' "
The profits of doom. Wherever bridges crumble, spewing travelers into the darkling void, LEEI's future brightens. Whenever airplanes plummet, buildings crack, walkways plunge into rubble or trains collide in a hell of grinding iron, business is looking up. The firm has consulted on the Chicago DC-10 crash, the Kansas City Hyatt Regency collapse, the MGM Grand Hotel fire, DES drug litigation, Ford and GM automobile burn cases, and a host of other grisly and lucrative devastations. In all, more than 2,500 analyses since Danninger and Johnson met at a San Francisco economic-consulting firm and decided to start their own company in February of 1982.
"One of the requirements for the job," says Johnson, is "a strong stomach. We have a significant number of paraplegics, quadriplegics, traumatic amputations, arms and legs completely ripped off, brain-damaged children. And the fire victims. The attorneys keep sending us photos, and we say, 'Listen, thanks, but we really don't need the pictures!' Remember the old 'Dragnet'? Just the facts, ma'am, that's all we want.
"The byproduct is that you sure are happy to be able to get out of bed in the morning. You learn to enjoy sunsets and sunrises. You drive a lot more carefully. And everybody here wears seat belts."