Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Appropriate Compensation"

I bought a book for my recent trip to Toronto to read on the airplane. I have specific requirements in an “airplane book.” The book has to be absorbing enough to make me forget that I’m reading it forty thousand feet in the air, but not be so good that, should we happen to crash, I would feel badly that I didn’t get to finish it.

The book I chose was John Grisham’s The Appeal. Grisham’s novels easily meet my “airplane book” requirements. Our local bookstore carries an entire shelf them. While trying to decide which “Grisham” to buy, I noticed something very strange. Every Grishman book I looked at had a quote emblazoned across the cover announcing that it was “Grisham’s best book in years.” I wondered where they kept the less successful Grisham books that he’d written in between.

I chose The Appeal because it’s Grishman’s most recent outing. Plus the cover quoted The New York Times proclaiming, “John Grisham delivers his savviest book in years.”

I also liked the book’s cover. It showed three “judges”, dressed in robes, walking away from the camera. This led me to wonder about the auditions behind such an undertaking.

“Bring me three models the backs of whose heads look like judges.”

That sounds like a pretty tough assignment.

I won’t say much about the book, except that the writing felt like it was written not on a computer but by a computer, and after 482 pages, we find out that the bad guys win. Oops, I gave away the ending. Saw-wy. Consider it a rescue. Do you really want to read a book where despoilers of local groundwater systems wind up lighting victory cigars? It’s unlikely you’ll be seeing The Appeal on the big screen. Though I’m generally anti “obligatory upbeat ending”, on this occasion, I am enthusiastically “pro.” I mean, what was Grisham thinking? These people were poisoning children!

“Those things actually happen.”

This is fiction! You can have any ending you want!

(Here, as a sidelight, is why I don’t “get” fiction. Page 306. “He estimated the cost of the Lawsuit Victims for Truth mailing at $300,000 (actual cost: $320,000).” What is he talking about? There is no “actual cost.” The whole story is made up!)

I’m making a turn here. A better writer would handle this transition more artfully. I’m just saying I’m making a turn.

The Appeal, not unlike Erin Brockovitch, involves a trial and, duh, an appeal, where a small town’s families have been seriously damaged, and in some cases killed, by corporate polluters. Let me place this clearly on the record. When it comes to corporate polluters seriously damaging and in some cases killing small town families or families of any sized community, I am unequivocally against it. That is a terrible thing for them to do.


Here is my first concern.

If I made the laws, convicted corporate polluters who caused people to get sick and die, after paying the “actual damages” to the victims, should not pay any further, what they call, “punitive damages”, which they have ways of recovering, but should, instead, be thrown into jail, where fellow inmates, informed of their behavior, could sidle up to them in the yard and pummel them with lead pipes. Okay, maybe that’s too rough. My main point is: For punishment? Not “punitive damages.” Prison.

My second concern.

Where “punitive damages” go.

Right now, “punitive damages” are paid, along with “actual damages”, to the plaintiffs (and of course, to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the standard split being, two thirds – to the plaintiff, one third – to the lawyers.) I understand the theory behind “punitive damages”. “Punitive damages” are an additional punishment meted out to evildoers over and above the “actual damages.” I agree with the theory of “punitive damages.” Evildoers should be additionally punished for their actions, although, as mentioned, I greatly prefer “punitive prison”, with or without the lead pipes.

What I don’t understand is why the “punitive damages” are given to the plaintiffs (and their lawyers). What is the reasoning behind their receiving the “punishment” money? Do policemen keep the money from the traffic tickets? No. That goes somewhere, maybe into some kind of a fund. Why can’t “punitive damages” go someplace too?

If people are truly outraged by the huge awards handed down by juries, instead of capping the amounts of those awards, why not pass a law requiring “actual damages” to go to the plaintiffs (and their lawyers) and have “punitive damages” go somewhere else? Like to help pay off the deficit, or to medical research, or to bankroll some other worthy enterprise. Unless there’s a persuasive explanation, I see no reason that “punitive damages” should go to the plaintiffs. (And their lawyers.) That side has already been compensated, hopefully fairly, by the “actual damages” award.

You can skip this next part if you’re not comfortable with dark humor. I’ll see you tomorrow.

I have never been able to understand the connection between not being alive anymore, due to negligent behavior, and a large sum of money being handed over to your family. I am baffled by the whole idea of “money for dead.” Leading to a computational industry, where experts assess precisely how much money the deceased person is worth. Does this enterprise really speak flatteringly of us as a people? What kind of culture puts a monetary determination on somebody’s value as a person?

In The Appeal I learned that dead children are worth less than working adults. The children weren’t earning any money, so there’s no “lost income” to factor into the payment. On the other hand, the experts seem to overlook the fact that children, being younger, have had a larger portion of their lives taken away from them. There’s no money being allotted for “curtailed lifespan.”

When you think about it, who can predict how much those children might have made? They could have grown up and become rock stars. Or one of those corporate CEO’s who ruined their company and was paid tens of millions to go away. You never know.

The rationales underlying compensation awards seem arbitrary and ridiculous. But say, somehow, it gets done. The amount is determined, the check goes out. Then what?

Your daughter dies from drinking poisoned water. Her parents get a million bucks. What are they going to do with it, buy a new daughter?

Dad always wanted a boat. He buys one with the award money. He proudly sails it around. People ask,

“What do you call her?”

He says,

“The Dead Daughter.”

He probably wouldn’t call her that. It might be too painful to name it after her at all. But whatever he does, he has to realize he’s sailing a dead daughter boat. What does that feel like?

“She’d want me to have it.”


The breadwinner dies, you need to have money. I get that. Someone’s permanently injured and requires lifetime medical care. Of course. But someone dies who was not contributing financially, and you get this huge pile of money. What exactly are you supposed to do with it? And what is its connection with the actual loss?

“We thought the money would make them feel better.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

“Well, what are you proposing instead?”

I don’t know. People need to be punished, and people need to be compensated. But the idea of assessing monetary value to a life, and that getting the payment somehow balances the books, and most importantly, that there’s any reasonable link between money and unimaginable emotional agony…
There’s something wrong there. It just doesn’t make sense.


Anonymous said...

I think we should live by a very simple rule. If you take someone's life, not through an accident, I'm talking about either on purpose or through clear negligence, you should lose your life. Period. No monetary settlements. No pardons. No exceptions. It might take a year or so, but my guess is it would cut down on tragic, needless deaths by 90% within a year. If only we had the guts to do it. And before someone goes off on some high and mighty message about mercy and law, talk to me after you've buried someone who was killed by a drunk driver or a gang member or a company who really did put profits ahead of safety.

Gnasche said...

Here's a scenario I've thought of to show if you really believe the death penalty is a deterrent.

You've been cheating on your spouse. You are woken up in the middle of the night by them standing over you with a gun in your face. They know what you've done. They'll pull the trigger in three seconds. What will you actually say to save your life?

"If you kill me then you'll be put to death, as well"


"You deserved better"

Anonymous said...

"That better be a LICENSED gun"...

Gnasche said...


I don't know if this is the same anonymous, but if so, good job. My post was a trap to get you to contradict yourself by pointing out it's flaw. It can hardly be used as a universal measuring stick. We would have different opinions in different scenarios based on the specifics.

growingupartists said...

Some of your best writing lately, Earl. Been enjoying the consumption.