Awards in Legal Cases Reinforce Inequalities

A recent Washington Post article, “In One Corner of the Law, Minorities and Women Are Often Valued Less” by Kim Soffen (October 25, 2016), reports on the racial and gender inequalities of court awards, particularly awards compensating a family or individual in cases where someone is seriously injured or killed. Findings include:

…white and male victims often receive larger awards than people of color and women in similar cases, according to more than two dozen lawyers and forensic economists, the experts who make the calculations. These differences largely derive from projections of  how much more money individuals would have earned over their lifetimes had they not been injured – projections that take into account average earnings and employment levels by race and gender.

Calculating future lost income takes into account the number of years a victim would have worked and his or her expected wages. Women and minorities are lower on both fronts.   Economists’ calculations use these averages to varying extents based on the details of the case, also accounting for things such as the person’s age and wage history. Demographic averages tend to play the biggest role in cases where lengthy work history, education and other variables aren’t readily available – such as with children and people who (by choice or not) don’t work.

The calculation may change so that awards do not reflect assumptions about lifetime income based on race and gender. For instance, at the end of a case involving a 4-year boy mentally disabled by lead paint on the walls of his apartment, the judge strongly denounced the practice of using race, ethnicity, and gender when calculating damages:

“Race and ethnicity are not, and should not, be a determinant of individual achievement. To support such a proposition distorts the American Dream,” he ]the judge] wrote. “A traditional, automatic, unthinking approach by experts in the field can no longer be tolerated.”

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