You always have to take a damage claim in a lawsuit with a grain of salt. Either they’re small because the plaintiff is simply alleging enough to meet a jurisdictional threshold for the particular court they’re in — claiming, say, “no less than $15,000” to make it clear the suit doesn’t belong in small claims court — or else it’s comically large for the purposes of getting attention (“Plaintiff demands $7 billion for emotional distress following the willful and wanton destruction of his couch cushion fort by defendant”). The point is that the complaint in a lawsuit does not tie the plaintiff to a certain amount of damages.
But as the case progresses, the damages do have to be established with specificity. And proven, once the case has been reduced to judgment in favor of the plaintiff. To that end, there will be discovery, filings and other bits of info that reveal the damages case the plaintiffs plan to put on when the time comes.
That process is beginning in the Bryan Stow case against the Los Angeles Dodgers arising out of his near-fatal beating on Opening Day. The damage claim at the moment: $50 million.
That’s a lot of money. But Bryan Stow is in a really bad way. He’s had months of around-the-clock medical care in ICU or near-ICU conditions. He faces many more months if not years — and if not that, the rest of his life — in a similar situation. He’ll likely never work again. And that’s before you put a price on his pain, his suffering and that of his family. I could totally see a $50 million claim that isn’t off-the-charts crazy, even if such an amount is unlikely to be ultimately awarded (and even then, only if it’s found that the Dodgers are responsible).
Which — and pardon me if this comes off as insensitive — is a reminder of a nasty little truth they teach you back in law school. The lesson: in purely monetary terms, a defendant is better off if his negligence actually kills someone — preferably instantly — than if it merely severely maims them and/or kills them after some long period of time. Or, as my very colorful torts professor put it “if you run someone over in your car, look in the rear view mirror: if they’re moving around, back up and finish them off. Your insurance company will thank you.”
Yes, he was kidding, but the point was still illustrative: pain, suffering and a life cast into ruin is, at least in legal terms, far more costly than a life swiftly taken. There are practical reasons for this (e.g. the pain is compensible and a person who dies fast doesn’t have much of it) and reasons which involve legal tactics (e.g. a jury is often more moved by a video of a person in a hospital bed than they are by an out-of-sight, out-of-mind dead person). And while it may reveal a weird aspect of human psychology, the fact is that jurors are also more deeply affected by weeping caregiving wives of living persons who are incapacitated than they are by weeping widows.
Early this morning I mentioned my dark humor and bluntness when it comes to matters of tragedy. You can thank law school for a whole hell of a lot of that.