A Human's Worth

There's the Kelly Blue Book value for used cars. There's an appraisal value for a house. There's even the going market price for cattle and hogs. But how much is a person worth?

Most would agree that we should never put a value on human life unless the word "priceless" is involved. I'm afraid a so-called tort reform measure, SJR8, that is on the November general election ballot not only puts a value on human life, but a pretty low value at that--just $500,000.

This proposed state constitutional amendment caps non-economic damages in a personal-injury lawsuit at $500,000. Under this amendment, courts cannot award more than $500,000 in non-economic damages to the injured person or their family. That $500,000 is all that could be awarded for pain, suffering, and mental anguish.

That sounds pretty good when you think of spilled McDonald's coffee, but what about tragedies like the loss of a young mother and homemaker who dies because of flat-out negligence on the part of a hospital? After paying for things like her hospital bills and funeral, all they would be liable for would be a maximum of $500,000 to help her preschool children grow up without a mother for the next 15 or 20 years.

Why? Because she chose to be a homemaker with no lost wages or future career earnings. This new amendment dishonors her. It devalues her life, and it disregards the children left behind.

This amendment sets the going rate for non-economic damages for people killed or injured due to the negligence of others. Retired husband or wife: $500,000. Homemaker with four young children, but no outside income: $500,000. Mentally disabled child: $500,000. Family man on disability: $500,000. Wealthy, young businessman: Unlimited economic damages, because of his projected future earnings and loss of wages.

So how should it be? Until something better is proposed, we should leave things as they are. Today, that homemaker with four young children who dies because of someone's negligence is covered by our jury system. Parties on both sides argue the circumstances of the case, and a jury of our neighbors decides how much the economic, non-economic, and punitive damages should be--not some arbitrary number set by the Legislature.

In Arkansas and many other states, there are no caps on these damages, because the facts and circumstances of every case are different.

Anyone who is genuinely pro-life knows that everyone's right to life is God-given. You can't put a price tag on a God-given right. Yet, that is exactly what this proposed amendment does.

Nursing home neglect is already common enough, even with the threat of huge lawsuits. Imagine what could happen under SJR8 if that threat goes away. Imagine multimillion-dollar, corporately owned facilities knowing they can cut staff and reduce care without the threat of a lawsuit.

Just how are we supposed to hold nursing home owners accountable when someone's grandmother dies from negligence?

The backers of this amendment could have written a proposal that focused on preventing lawyers from enriching themselves on frivolous lawsuits. They could have written an amendment that addressed some of the medical malpractice woes of our good physicians. But they didn't.

Instead, they crafted an amendment that puts a price tag on human life and leaves the door wide open for the nursing home industry to neglect our loved ones.

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Jerry Cox of Little Rock is president of the Family Council Action Committee.