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What is a human life worth?

Forget actuarial charts, insurance policies and federal estimates, and ask yourself if you could truly put a price on the value of even someone else’s husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister or friend if the person was accidentally killed and survivors brought a wrongful death lawsuit.

If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll admit that neither you nor anyone can put a price tag on a person who lives, loves, works and contributes to his or her community in innumerable ways.

Indiana would tell you were wrong.

Or, rather, lawmakers in Indiana (IN) would tell you that the maximum dollar value of anyone’s life is $5 million. For the seven Sugarland concertgoers at the Indiana State Fair who lost their lives when a temporary stage collapsed, however, the amount will only be as high as $714,000 — and that will be only if the more than 40 other people injured in the accident on August 13, 2011, decide not to file claims for medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.

Indiana, as USA Today revealed, is like a majority of states in capping the total monetary liability for the state government when a tragedy occurs. Investigations into the cause of the stage collapse are ongoing as of early September 2011, but state officials have already admitted that the temporary structure was not properly inspected (no law required an inspection) and that adequate weather precautions were not taken. Which is all to say that the Indiana government is surely liable for the injuries and deaths at the state fair. But since Indiana law limits the state’s payout for any single accident it caused or allowed to happen at $5 million, victims will receive far less than they will require to recover physically, emotionally and financially.

Virginia (VA), North Carolina (NC), and South Carolina (SC), are three states in which my Virginia Beach-based personal injury and wrongful death attorney colleagues and I hold licenses to represent plaintiffs in personal injury and wrongful death cases. Each has similar — and much lower — arbitrary caps on state and local governments’ liability for injuries and loss of life resulting from a single accident or act of negligence like what happened in Indiana. The following summaries of the relevant state government liability statutes were prepared by the American Association for Justice. Significantly, none of the governments can be held liable for the types of punitive damages that would be customary in a case involving most individual and corporate defendants.

  • NC — $1,000,000 total to all claimants, minus commercial liability insurance (NC General Statutes §§ 143-291, 143-300.16, 143-299.2). City and county governments do not have caps other than limiting liability to extent of insurance coverage (NC Gen. Stat. §§ 153A-435, 160A-485).
  • SC: $300,000 per person for a single accident; $600,000 total per accident. (SC Code § 15-78-120).
  • VA — $100,000 or amount of insurance, whichever is greater, for any injury (VA Code § 8.01-195.3).

I suppose it’s good that Indiana has agreed to provide any compensation at all to the victims of the state fair stage collapse. As the case in which a homeless man was crushed by a Virginia Beach, VA, garbage truck in broad daylight showed in 2010, governments have broad, and frequently invoked, latitude to claim sovereign immunity and deny plaintiffs even the opportunity to have their legitimate injury and wrong death claims heard in court.

Wrongful death lawsuits are incredibly hard for families that we represent, as any family member would rather have a family member who lost their life back instead of any amount of money. But the legal system prohibits retribution and only can provide compensation for grief, loss of consortium, loss of pension and other losses

I’m sure little comfort is really no comfort at all for the families who lost loved ones at the Indiana State Fair. That state, along with Virginia and every other, needs to remove liability caps that only add to victims’ suffering.


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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