What’s Wrong With Inherited Judgments?
David Bernstein makes a bizarre observation regarding the outcome of the Iowa stuttering study lawsuit. If you haven’t been following this, this lawsuit surrounded a study in the 1930’s by the University of Iowa, in which orphans were abused by researchers trying to induce speech impediments in them.
Bernstein’s observation regarding the case is this:
On a separate note, it looks like much of the money will go to the estates of some of the victims. This sort of thing always strikes me as odd; but for whatever experiences the victims had, good, bad, or indifferent, their children would have never existed. I’m sorry my ancestors were oppressed by the czars, but from a purely personal point of view, I benefited. It’s not simply that I got to grow up in the United States instead of Eastern Europe, is that I exist at all! Even though three of my grandparents lived under the czars’ rule, I would think it just about as strange to get a reparations check from the Russian government as from the Italians (for oppressing my ancestors 2,000 years ago) or the Egyptians (1,400 or so years before that). [Emphasis Added]
I fail to see what’s so odd about this. Money judgments in civil lawsuits primarily serve two purposes. The first and primary is to compensate the victims for the damages done to them. The secondary purpose is to deter future unlawful behavior.
Both of these purposes are served by awarding judgments to the estates of deceased plaintiffs. First off, if the plaintiffs were still alive when the judgment was awarded, but the plaintiff died a year later, that money would be inherited by his or her heirs. Accordingly, what difference does it make if the plaintiff dies before the judgment is awarded? Victims in these cases still deserve compensation, and they no doubt want to use the money to ensure some benefits for the children and grandchildren. That the harm took place before the birth of the plaintiff’s children is irrelevant, as it’s the generic heir being compensated by law, not a particular person.
Secondly, if judgments couldn’t be awarded to the estates of plaintiffs, then the deterrent effect of these lawsuits is lost. This is especially true when, as in this case, the defendant is a government entity. Not only that, but if plaintiff’s estates couldn’t be awarded judgments, you have a situation where it could be beneficial to the defendant that a plaintiff die. You don’t need to be an economist to figure out that such a rule would create a perverse incentive for defendants to cause the death of plaintiffs.