Around the Institute

In Light of the One Fund Boston: What is a Life Worth?

May 15, 2013  • Institute Contributor

Recently The New York Times profiled Kenneth Feinberg as he prepares to administer payments from One Fund Boston for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. As the profile notes, this has become an all-too-common responsibility for Mr. Feinberg, who has also handled compensation funds for victims of September 11, 2001; the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, CO in 2012; and the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT in 2012.

In all of these cases Mr. Feinberg has considered difficult questions of value and compensation: how to place a value on life-changing injuries of different severity — whether someone lost one leg or both legs in an attack. The Times quotes Mr. Feinberg from a recent appearance in Boston as saying, “If you had a billion dollars you could not have enough money to deal with all of the problems that ought to be addressed by these attacks.”

What then does Mr. Feinberg take into consideration when handling these funds? How does he weigh the mindset of the victims versus the mindset of the country? Does the source of the funding matter? How does the uniqueness of the American litigation system influence the compensation fund? Last summer Mr. Feinberg discussed these matters and more with Neal Conan of NPR’s Talk of the Nation at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Their conversation focused on how the law values human life and how compensation can reflect self-worth in the eyes of the recipient.

In discussing when the public decides a tragedy demands action, Mr. Feinberg mentioned a tipping point, “The key moment for public restitution is the tipping point when the body politic decides we got to do something that this unprecedented situation — BP, Agent Orange, 9/11, Virginia Tech — we’ve got to do something in response to an unprecedented tragedy.”

Watch this clip from 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival :

And watch the full discussion.