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.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Steve Plunk says:

    If the lawsuit is initiated before the death of the tort victim I see the logic in awarding the judgement but what if the victim is never even aware of the suit? I don’t see the enrichment of the heirs as good public policy.

    I also question the deterrent of these awards when the government (in this case a state university) pays the judgement. Passing along the costs to the taxpayers may not deter anyone who makes these poor and sometimes malicious decisions.

  2. jpe says:

    In this case, it’s tough to see either of the twin aims of tort damages being satisfied. The general rule commented on is still a good one, though, so barring exercise of equitable power by the court (on the grounds that neither aim is satisfiable), bring on the damages.