Debate Over A Life's Worth

The Bergen Record ( — Tuesday, October 17, 2006


TRENTON — Victims of wrongful death are worth more than their paycheck, said advocates who want survivors to be compensated for their emotional suffering and personal loss.

New Jersey, along with nine other states, limits what surviving family members can recover from wrongful-death lawsuits to awards based solely on their lost loved one's earning power, said Peter Guzzo of Consumers for Civil Justice.

Amending New Jersey law to include damages for survivors' mental anguish and loss of companionship is "a fairness and equity issue," Guzzo said during a press conference at the State House.

Consumers for Civil Justice, an umbrella organization for several non-profit advocacy groups, is urging lawmakers to review and pass bills proposed in the state Senate and Assembly that would make changes in the law, Guzzo said.

The proposed amendment will "provide justice to families who lose a great deal" from a wrongful death, said state Sen. Joseph Doria, D-Hudson, sponsor of the bill.

"It's a sad situation when we see these deaths occur and families not only lose their family member, but also lose the psychological support of the relationship," Doria said.

Insurance companies would have to pay for any additional liability under an amended wrongful-death law, Doria said.

Rachel Moore, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Council of New Jersey, said her group would be "concerned" about the impact that increased settlements would have on carriers and consumers.

"Any insurance is a system everyone pays into and ultimately everyone pays out through their premium. Any increase in cost is ultimately borne by the policyholders," said Moore, whose organization represents 26 insurance companies.

New Jersey lawmakers will have to study similar legislation in other states to determine exactly who is entitled to how much under the proposed amendment, said Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, co-sponsor of the Assembly bill with Sheila Oliver, D-Essex. Greenstein said she has requested a hearing on the measure later this month.

The state's existing law "trivializes the lives" of many retired seniors in the state, said Marilyn Askin, chief legislative advocate of AARP New Jersey, which has 1.35 million members.

Half of AARP's members are retired and "existing law in New Jersey says they are worthless," she said.

"An attorney who retired at age 65 and is doing volunteer or pro bono work makes no more money and [their families] will collect virtually nothing, because a jury determines what a person is making this year and the rest of their life," Askin said.

On the other hand, a jury might determine that an attorney, who was age 35 and making $200,000 a year when he or she was killed, might be worth $6 million in earning power to survivors, she said.

Tikisha Bell Gowens said her family was offered an "insulting" settlement after her 47-year-old mother, Sharon A. Bell, was accidentally killed by a dump truck in Newark in 2004. The payment was based on the fact that her mother, a nurse, was unemployed at the time of her death.

"I want to help create a legacy for her," Gowens said, explaining why she was advocating for the change in the law.

Ev Liebman of the advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action said the proposed amendment is "an important victims rights issue."

"The balance of our law today is tipped in favor of the victimizer, not the victim," Liebman said. The proposed bill recognizes that "someone's life is more than just the sum of the paycheck," she said.

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