Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

In Texas, Life Is Cheap

First Page



What is the life of a Texan worth? Some might suggest very little. Payments in thousands of tort cases in which Texans died provide some evidence for this hypothesis. Although Texas has been a focus of much of the national controversy over the costs of tort litigation, payments in death cases have seen relatively little disciplined research. Existing research often misses the primary effect of the system because it focuses on trial outcomes rather than settlement payments. This Article provides some evidence of the actual payments made in Texas in death cases, their determinants, and the implications of those findings for tort policy. Death cases provide a particularly useful tool for studying the effect of the tort compensation system, because the actual injury suffered is constant across all cases (though damages will differ among individuals). Moreover, appropriate economic valuation for death has been particularly well studied in economics scholarship and by government agencies. The context enables an analysis of how appropriate (legally and theoretically) tort compensation payments are.

The first Section examines the legal structure for the valuation of life in different institutional settings. Administrative agencies have set quantitative economic values for life-saving, in order to assess the propriety of adopting protective regulations. These values have been grounded closely in a very large body of social scientific research that measures the economic valuation that individuals place on protecting their lives. In addition, the 9-11 Compensation Commission placed a value on life in determining the amount of payments to the next of kin of those who died in the terrorist attack. Furthermore, the legal system has its own rules for assessing tort damages. The legal system's rules are more restrictive and generally do not attempt to fully capture the value of life.

The second Section describes the data used in this analysis, which is drawn from an extensive database maintained by the Texas Department of Insurance on closed claims. Here we describe the data and some of its limitations. The third Section examines the actual valuation of life in the Texas tort compensation system using this database. We find that the typical payment in death cases is quite low, far less than the valuation suggested by the social science research on life valuation. This is in part due to the restrictive standards for damages of tort law, which limit the recoverable damages. We also find that several legally inappropriate factors (such as insurance coverage, location, and nature of defendant) are statistically significant determinants of death payments in these claims. The fourth and final Section examines the policy implications of these findings and makes reform proposals. The value of life in the tort compensation system is far too low to induce the optimal deterrence of death-causing behavior by potential defendants. Moreover, the damages paid through the compensation system are infected by various inappropriate determinants. Therefore, we suggest a schedule providing a presumptive amount of damages for death at a level high enough to improve the system's ability to deter potential tortfeasors.

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