It may seem very cold to assess value to the price of a life, but that is what happens all the time following real world catastrophes. Negotiating these issues can be fraught with moral dilemmas, deep-rooted feelings of pain and trauma, as well as political land mines. So we should pay attention when the lawyer/mediator Kenneth Feinberg tries to explain what he learned and how he handled such challenges as the September 11 Victim Compensation fund, Agent Orange Settlement (1984), TARP bailouts, Virginia Tech massacre (2007) and even the Deepwater Horizon Disaster (2010)
So what is fair recompense for a wrongful death or a tragic loss? In America, he says, we’ve accepted that money is the medium, as unsatisfying as it may be. His bias is toward equal payments for every deceased victim. That has a root fairness to it — morally, every life is priceless — not to mention being much easier to administer. But with Sept. 11, he was reluctantly obliged to honor tort law, with the wrenching task of affixing an exact dollar value to each life lost.
Mr. Feinberg has concluded that the success of any public compensation fund lies in generosity — and in getting money out the door as quickly as possible. The Gulf Coast fund attracted more than a million claims and, over 16 intensive months, disbursed $6.14 billion to 575,000 claimants. Mr. Feinberg concedes that under pressure, the fund relaxed its criteria and honored some claims that “would have been laughed out of court.” But the fund also denied 420,000 claims, mostly for lack of documentation, and referred 4,000 claims for prosecution for fraud.