What is the value of one human life?

Bob Buckley
Legal perspectives
Bob Buckley

I hope everyone took some time last Saturday to reflect on the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

There are two events in my personal history that I remember vividly. I do not have vivid recollections of much of my childhood, but I remember very well the day that President Kennedy was shot in 1963. I was in the sixth grade at Bryant Elementary School. It was a cloudy November day, and I remember that we were sent home from school without much understanding of the magnitude of what had happened. It was a time of great sadness.

Almost 38 years later, we all witnessed the horror of 9/11, and I suspect that we all remember the exact moment we became aware that the first plane struck the first tower at the World Trade Center. I was in my law office on 42nd Street and we all gathered around the television in the conference room to watch the horrific events of the day unfold. President Kennedy’s assassination was an unspeakable tragedy. Yet, that event did not change America like the events of 9/11.

The country came together in unity after 9/11 like no other time since World War II. Unfortunately, the unity has disappeared. The sadness from that day has never left most of us. The stories that have been told are firmly planted in our memories.

One of the most powerful stories at the time was of Richard Rescorla, a Vietnam War hero who was a private security specialist for Stanley Dean Witter & Company and is credited with leading 2,700 employees to safety on 9/11, only to lose his life when he went back to make sure everyone had left the building. Rescorla had feared the possibility of the exact scenario that occurred and had led the 2,700 employees of his employer on drills every three months in anticipation of an emergency evacuation. Those drills saved the lives of everyone except Rescorla.

Last Saturday, I re-read an article about Rescorla from The New Yorker magazine that was published in 2002. It was a lengthy article, but worth every second. Rescorla was an immigrant from England. He is not depicted in the Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers,” but the co-author of the book that led to the making of the movie, General Hal Moore, described Rescorla as "the best platoon leader I ever saw". The members of his platoon nicknamed him "Hard Core," for his bravery in battle and compassion toward his men. His bravery and compassion 20 years ago are beyond extraordinary.

Another story that is coming to light is the tale of Kenneth Feinberg, the special master who was appointed to administer the funds of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. His task was to assign a dollar value to the 3,000 lives lost that day as well as the thousands of persons injured. He had an unlimited budget to repay families what could never be repaid.

The Washington Post had an article about Feinberg’s work last weekend, and there has been a movie on Netflix entitled “Worth,” which tells the story of his work. Michael Keaton plays Feinberg. Feinberg has also written a book, “What is Life Worth?” The movie and book are on my ‘to do” list.

As a trial lawyer who has handled too many wrongful-death cases throughout the past 41 years, the question of the worth of a life is one I struggle with on every case. I have the same speech in every case. The case is not about the worth of a life, but about the value of the case. Those are awful words to speak, and they seem empty, almost obscene, and meaningless when spoken. Of course, I preface it with words of solace that no amount of money can replace the loss that has been suffered. I hate making that speech.

Unfortunately, most of the deaths occurred as the result of medical negligence and the Missouri Legislature has declared in its finite wisdom that no life is worth more than $700,000. There is no limit on the economic loss, includes the medical bills and the loss of pecuniary support provided by the decedent, which is essentially nothing in cases in which the decedent is retired or no longer working.

It is difficult to explain to a client that there is a legislatively imposed limit on the most important part of the loss: the loss of consortium, companionship, comfort, guidance and counsel caused by the loss of a loved one. The legislature has denied a jury the full right to decide the value of a life. An inflationary provision in the statute has increased the limit to $775,000, but it still is not enough. I understand the reason for the cap is to protect health-care providers from excessive jury verdicts, but that logic is hollow and unpersuasive when explaining it to my clients.

I don’t know what Rick Rescorla’s widow received from the Victim Compensation Fund. He is a true American hero who came to America to fight for the greatest country on Earth in a war that could not be won. His life is invaluable.

My former pastor has been the minister at the funerals of six members of my family and countless others I have attended, and he always reminds us that our loved ones who have died are worth our tears. No truer words have been spoken. Yet, the losses are immeasurable. Having handled over 100 wrongful-death cases, I know that all too well.

Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com.