Copyright Harper’s Magazine Foundation Aug 2001
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of noting.
“A wrongful death is worth a base amount,” says George Marr, holding his hand at chest level.
“But if the guy coaches Little League, that’s good,” Ed Quinn adds as George’s hand springs up to chin height.
“He’s got two little girls,” George says.
“And they’re cute.”
“They’re cute,” George repeats. “Boom.” His hand goes above his head.
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Except for the setting-a Midtown Manhattan bar-Ed and George are doing now what they do all day: computing the value a jury would assign the deceased in a wrongful-death case and gauging how to persuade survivors to settle for less. Ed is tall and slim, tightly controlled and tense, with a softly menacing voice that’s equal parts Brooklyn and Baldwin. He’s drinking Merlot, slowly. George is shorter, fatter, looser. He’s drinking Buds, one ofter the other. I’m drinking Heinekens, which they both find funny. Did I know, they ask me, that a dead man’s worth is partly determined by his wife’s beauty? The prettier she is, Ed explains, “the more jury appeal she has.” But she shouldn’t be gorgeous. “The jury goes, `Wait a minute, wait a minute.”‘ “She’s probably a bitch,” George adds. “I didn’t like her in high school.”
Here’s the sad truth of what they have come to tell me: In the end, life is exactly what you feared it to be-a popularity contest. As casualty adjusters, Ed and George judge people as if they were casting a Harrison Ford movie or a minivan commercial. The closer the deceased was to an idealized vision of American man- or womanhood-a white, straight, successful, outgoing, potent, attractive, middle-aged parent who tenderly cared for spouse, children, and aged parents-the greater his or her worth. Just as in high school, any deviation from the norm is punished. Only with Ed and George, conformity is paid out on a sliding scale. Jocks are worth the most, geeks a lot less, and slutty girls lower everyone’s value.
George, hand above his head, continues to evaluate the man with the cute girls. “His wife’s a bimbo tramp, you come down a little.”
“Or he’s having an affair,” Ed says.
“Or he’s stealing from his company,” George adds, his hand now below his stomach, the man’s value halved. “You don’t write it down. It’s intuitive, based on experience.”
“A good adjuster is a smart guy who knows the street, the law, medicine, architecture,” Ed says. “You’re talking about a jack-of-all-trades. He can just as easily go into a lawyer’s office and the worst neighborhood in the city. You don’t have the luxury of a gun and a badge. People don’t have to talk to you. A good adjuster gets people to talk because he’s good at what he does.”
I ask them to evaluate my worth, and they tell me that outdoorsy people are worth more than people like me, who stay home and read. “People have no sympathy for somebody who sits alone on his couch, drinks beer, eats food, and is a load,” Ed says.
“That’s why nobody likes me,” says George. “It’s how sympathetic you are. People go, ‘He rock climbed,’ you know. `This guy enjoyed life. He was out there doing things.’ You cherish life more if you are interacting with it.”
These value judgments surround us like air, and, like air, at death they become integral in the process of breaking someone down. Adjusters like Ed and George are just the biological agents that speed degradation along. Ed works freelance for several companies, including the one at which George is now a vice president, First Capital Risk Services. Insurance companies spend some $107.5 billion each year in casualty verdicts and settlements, which is equivalent to 1.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Most wrongfuldeath cases-medical malpractice, product liability, car wrecks, airplane crashes-eventually settle out of court, but both sides can go to a jury if they think they’ll get a better outcome. Therefore juries-which hear three cases out of a hundred-determine the value in the other ninety-seven.
Ed explains: “What is a fifty-nine– year-old executive worth in the Bronx? I may not know. I’ll go to a jury award, a case that’s been litigated. Then we know that with this kind of case, this kind of person, he’s worth $2 million.”
Theirs is hardly an exact science,’ for juries, too, start with the calculable-medical and funeral expenses; how much the person provided for his wife, children, parentsand then add or subtract for intangibles.
“Remember that case a couple of years ago, girl going to a wedding?” Ed asks George. “The limousine makes a turn and is hit broadside by a guy in one of these souped-up cars. Killed the bride, killed the groom, the best man. Man, girl’s going to her wedding. What the hell is that worth? People are pissed. A mother giving birth dies on the operating table. Shit. That’s worth a lot of money.”
“Know what the worst are?” George asks. “Burns.”
Ed sucks air through his teeth. “Big money. Big money.”
“You want them dead quick,” George says. “No pain and suffering. Boom. It’s very cynical.” He laughs.
In fact, because of the premium put on testimony regarding pain and suffering, juries tend to award generously for severe injuries but undervalue deaths. When claimants don’t get the amount they appear to deserve in a settlement, it could be either because the defendant had a small insurance policy or because the adjuster found out something unsavory about the victim.
“Suppose the guy was a dirtbag,” Ed says. “I find out the guy was a criminal or wife abuser. It knocks down the value.”
“You had that woman who was HIV-positive and is running to the methadone clinic and gets hit by a bus,” George recalls helpfully.
“Yeah, well, see, we were in a better position to discuss settlement,” Ed says.
They may sound cold, but Ed and George see themselves as the good guys. Everyone tries to rip off insurance companies, they say, which is why insurance costs so much and why nobody respects our courts anymore. Adjusters help keep settlements down and put reason back into the system.
But that doesn’t mean anyone is grateful.
“The insured hates you, you’re giving away his money,” George says. “Claimants don’t like you, you’re not giving enough money. Your own company doesn’t like you because you’re paying too much money. Attorneys don’t like you because you’re controlling the money.”
“You’re at the sorry end of our business,” Ed says. “Twenty-five years ago there was an esprit de corps. Adjusters were…”
“They were social misfits and outcasts,” George says.
“The industry was full of extremely colorful people who had certain problems,” Ed continues. “They never achieved what they should have. They could discuss medicine like doctors, law like lawyers.” Adjusters used to call their own shots, settle cases their own way, he adds. Nowadays, every adjuster has a vice president giving him quarterly goals based on some software projection.
He smiles as he recalls the adjuster who trained him: “A guy in his sixties. Bow tie. He looked like Howdy Doody. I’m embarrassed to be in the same car with him. He would go into the bathroom, look in the mirror, comb his hair, and say to himself, `John, don’t ever change, Mr. America.”‘ Ed mimics, rolling his hands over his hair before pointing both forefingers out cowboy-gun style. “Crazy. But he was a great adjuster. He made great settlements.”
Although insurance adjusters are an integral part of violent death, we do our best to pretend they don’t exist. They act much like private detectives but are rarely portrayed in the media. What they do makes us uncomfortable, so we treat them like an untouchable caste. Even adjusters are uneasy discussing their work. Ed and George loved to detail gruesome accidents, but when I asked about the routine valuation of cases, George said, “Why are you writing about us? It’s so boring.”
My protests-what could be more compelling than putting a value on human life?-were met with disdain. Corporate America doesn’t want employees to contemplate the deeper truths suggested by their work-it prevents them from automatically and efficiently toiling away-and for adjusters, the perils of soul-searching are particularly clear. The longer they ponder the value of a mother’s love or the price of loneliness, the more money they’ll give away. But it isn’t only adjusters who cultivate detachment. We all do. When someone dies at the hands of our industrialized society, all of us contemplate how many lives we are willing to lose for bigger cars, more planes, tastier coffee, and how we want the marketplace to measure our souls. But for the economy to chug merrily along, someone has to convert death into cash so that corporations can move past the speed bumps caused by unexpected fatalities. When adjusters take on that task, they also take on our contempt for it.
I first confronted the implications of placing a dollar value on human life four years ago when I was hired to help write a course for mid-level adjusters graduating from the pricing of dented fenders and sprained wrists to the big league: the valuing of paraplegics and the dead. For several weeks I sat in a cramped conference room with five senior adjusters: big menz who cursed and competed to tell tales about bizarre or violent deaths.
During these “roundtables,” one adjuster would read a case history out loud-where the accident occurred, who seemed at fault, how the victim died-while another stood next to an oversized pad of paper on an easel and totaled up the value. One column was devoted to “Pain and Suffering,” or, in adjuster shorthand, “P+S.” Emotional losses were gleaned from a stack of depositions by the deceased’s relations. If a mother said her son visited every week, that was worth a few hundred thousand. For spouses willing to testify, the loss of good, frequent sex could add $250,000 or more to a claim.
Some depositions were extremely moving, but just as often they were a compilation of stock phrases such as “my mother would always walk barefoot on the beach” or “my husband loved watching sunsets.” And when a case does go to trial, the plaintiff’s side often introduces videos with sappy music and heartbreaking narration designed to whip the jury into a frenzy of sentimental generosity.
Of course, for every cloying plaintiff cliche, adjusters respond with a gross caricature of their own. In love? We have testimony that the deceased and his wife fought all the time. Good father? The kids’ teachers say he never once picked them up from school. Since a person’s primary value is derived from earnings-actual and potential-and the number of dependents, adjusters are particularly brutal when considering the dead person’s prospects, hiring economists to say he never would have amounted to much anyway.
Sitting there among the empty coffee cups, stale pastries, and stacks of paper, I found myself rooting for the dead, wishing that they had died more painfully and left more loved ones behind. The worse the death, the more money they’d bring. It was hard not to take the valuations personally. I hated that my relationship with my girlfriend has no dollar value while any loveless marriage is worth at least a few hundred thousand, that reading and writing are worth nothing. Why should my value be determined by criteria I don’t agree with? Do I need to spend my weekend doing something I don’t like-mountain climbing, praying-just to prove I am worth something?
Of course, all of us would like to consider ourselves unique, even rare. Adjusters, however, are only interested in the rack rate of human life. In the hopes that I could reasonably assess my own worth, I plowed through the archives of the Cook County Jury Verdict Reporter, examining forty recent cases of men who had died between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. The reports were terse: a few lines about the plaintiff and the defendant, the lawyers involved, and, in bold type, the amount of the verdict or settlement. I didn’t find any answers, only more questions. Why was one twenty– six-year-old man, electrocuted on a work site, worth $5 million while another, also twenty-six, electrocuted on a different site, was worth only $400,000? Both were married, and neither was held responsible for the accident. A thirty-five-year-old HIV-positive roofer who fell to his death was worth $2 million, even with a reduced life expectancy. Yet a twenty-four-year– old professional prizefighter was worth only $150,000. He was popping a wheelie on his bicycle when a driver– who admitted he wasn’t paying attention-hit him. Why is he worth so little when a deranged ex-convict, killed as he stopped his car on a train track, was valued at $500,000?
The Reporter’s editor, John Kirkton, points out that even within a single jurisdiction verdicts fluctuate wildly,3 which is why adjusters average the results of a range of reports. The quality of the adjusters and attorneys, the character of the witnesses, and-if the case goes go to trial-the temperament of the judge and the jury foreman all dramatically affect the final amount.
But it is inter-jurisdictionally that things get really bizarre. In some states, like New York, juries are instructed to ignore most intangibles, to figure a person’s worth according to lost income plus something for pain and suffering. Other states allow juries to consider the deceased’s extracurriculars and add money for a love of golf or for spending summers in France. Not that the laws of the state matter much; in the end, juries act on emotion. Still, there are certain patterns: Farmers are famously stingy, perhaps because they are more familiar with death. Suburban Republicans are typically less generous than urban Democrats. Suburbanites tend to sympathize with the entity being sued, whereas urbanites, and especially minorities, often see business or government as a long– standing adversary and believe that a generous award is the only chance survivors have for a better life. Thus juries in Brooklyn and the Bronx often ignore New York law and ratchet up awards for intangibles they’re not supposed to consider. The value of dead children is particularly sensitive to changes in geography. A net drain on a family’s wealth, children are often worth only the cost of a casket in rural and Republican counties. But in urban counties, children can be valued in the hundreds of millions.
People are generally worth the most in all of New York City’s boroughs (except for Staten Island), Detroit, Los Angeles, southern Texas,4 and Chicago. The stingiest areas are the western states, Republican Bible Belt counties, and the conservative suburbs ringing the most generous places: Chicago’s DuPage County; Westchester, New York; Connecticut; and much of Michigan.
If I were killed while driving through Chicago, Kirkton figured that, with a decent education and prospects but no dependents, I would likely be worth around $1 million. If I were just forty minutes away, in rural Indiana, an adjuster told me I’d never top $35,000.
The notion that a wrongful death deserves monetary retribution is so ingrained in our capitalist system that we barely question it. But our “make them pay” attitude is hardly universal. The Amish don’t sue in the face of tragedy. If a parent dies, the community nurtures the orphan. If a child dies, they mourn and move on. “To file an insurance claims is an act of defiance against the norms of the community,” a sign that someone trusts neither his neighbors nor God’s providence to help, says Donald B. Kraybill, author of The Riddle of Amish Culture. “It’s sacrilegious,” even a cause for shunning.
But in most societies retribution is as important as social support, and throughout history we’ve struggled to prevent unending cycles of vengeance slayings by paying off survivors. Around A.D. 600, the Anglo-Saxon king AEthelberht wrote the first of many legal codes that established different values for different sorts of people,6 and before long most Germanic tribes used this wergild, or man-price, to define a person’s place in society. A person might be known as a 100-shilling man; his betters, 300– shilling men. In any case, the price was so exorbitant that the temptation to become wealthy from the (accidental or intentional) death of a loved one usually surpassed the desire to exact vengeance.
For centuries, negotiating a wergild was one of the few transactions in which actual money was used. But as capitalism gradually supplanted the bartering system with a monetary one, Protestant individualism preached that human life was unique and should not be bought and sold. Ergo, those convicted of a crime could no longer pay a wergild and walk free; those who accidentally lost a loved one had to turn to their community or trade guild for assistance. Industrialization, particularly railroads, led to another evolutionary step in the law. As trains hit and killed an increasing number of people, the wrongful-death lawsuit was born. In response, rail companies effectively created the casualty-insurance industry, and, with insurance money available, lawsuits grew in size and frequency. As new industries led to novel accidental deaths, corporate casualty insurance spread. In the 1920s a dramatic rise in automobile accidents prompted private citizens to get coverage; today, more than 75 percent of Americans and almost all businesses have “property/casualty” insurance. In forty-seven states, you can’t own a car legally without having insurance.
The rise of casualty insurance is in some senses a throwback to the wergild, but it is also an integral part of capitalism, a market-based system of checks and balances on corporations. Either in their manufacture or their consumption, virtually all products lead to some death and injury. The cost of litigation affects not only the good’s price but also the standard of production. “Look at your car: every softened corner, every piece of padding,” explains Ted Miller, an economist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation and formerly with the Department of Transportation. “Everything altered to avoid injuring you has been done because the manufacturers determined that making the change in the thousands of cars that don’t crash will save them paying for the people who would have been killed in the cars that do.”
To economists, this constant refinement makes much more sense than the arbitrary ways in which juries and adjusters value human life. Economists like Miller believe that these “untrained evaluators” have a huge and often illogical impact on the economy, and that the job of determining one’s life price should be left to the marketplace. How? Each time we pay for a life-saving device we are, economists say, indirectly putting a value on our lives. If I decide not to buy a carbon-monoxide detector because it costs $12 and the odds are low-one in a million-that I might die of CO poisoning, I’m stating that my life is worth less than $12 million. If I pay $500 for an air bag that eliminates a one in 10,000 chance of dying, I’m valuing my life at $5 million. Economists have scrutinized every imaginable subgroup’s risk-avoidance purchases: Sri Lankans; rural African Americans; urban Europeans. In America, the shopping-based value of human life averages about $3.8 million, which is 100 times more than a life in, say, Bangladesh.
Although the purchase-based model is not applied by U.S. courts, it has a profound effect on national policy. Federal agencies, which must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of any proposed regulation with an expected annual economic impact of $100 million or more a year, have each developed a standard price for human life, ranging from $6.2 million at the Environmental Protection Agency to $3 million at the D.O.T. In fact, it was Miller who raised the D.O.T.’s life price from $200,000, which means that if some new roadway feature-more malleable metal railings, say, or wider lanes– costs $30 million and will save more than ten lives, D.O.T. now considers it worthwhile. “I’ve saved thousands of lives,” he says. “Few economists can say that.”
Many of Miller’s peers want to bring this concept into the courtroom, because they believe that life value should be determined by professional experts. But the judicial system considers life price to be a matter of opinion-and, therefore, for juries to decide. Moreover, risk-avoidance evaluation proposed by economists has serious practical and political limitations. People buy carbon-monoxide detectors when they see something scary on the news, not because they know they’re preventing a one-in-amillion risk. And since such purchases are dependent on disposable income, this system would imply that the poor-who buy food instead of CO detectors-place less value on their lives than the affluent.7 Can you imagine Congress announcing that, based on each group’s purchases, the government has determined African Americans to be worth $1 million; white women, $2 million; and white men, $4 million?
However sophisticated and modem the insurance industry now seems-and no business has sleeker office buildings-it is still based on vengeance. Were survivors willing to accept calculable losses-medical and funeral expenses, lost income-cases would settle in weeks, not years. But we want more. We want recognition that the person we lost was wonderful, that losing him or her was tragic, and we want the guilty party to pay. Yet we’ve transferred the task of negotiating retribution to a third party. Within hours of an accident, the perpetrator disappears from the proceedings; the adjuster becomes the focus of our anger, the target for our revenge.
I get a chance to see an adjuster in action when Ed invites me to spend a day with him in the field. As we climb into his flashy red convertible, he describes’the “shithole” we’ll visit, a filthy brown high-rise, one of New York City’s housing projects, surrounded by a litter-strewn concrete park. It has “a urine problem. On a nice 90-degree day, ooof.” The first time he went there, some twenty years ago, he walked up twenty-seven funky floors to gauge what turned out to be the imaginary loss of an insane woman. “I was too stupid to say I wouldn’t go up. It’s a tough place to work. A tough area.” While he parks, I ask if he’s afraid his car will be stolen. “If I have to drive a piece-of-garbage car, I might as well hang up my adjuster’s license,” he says.
He also likes coming here; there are always interesting cases. Last week there were two separate pit-bull attacks, one on a toddler. The boy’s father unclenched the jaws and threw the dog over a balcony rail. It hit the ground a dozen stories below, splattering a group of people sitting on a park bench. A few months ago, a seven-year-old boy plunged to his death when he leaned over the parapet to peek at a carnival below. The kid and his distracted babysitter were at fault, however, and the building’s insurance company, which Ed represents, pays only when the accident is, or might be perceived to be, the fault of the management.
His first order of business is to get a sense of the basics. “You want to know what the age of the person is, what he did for a living, what kind of health he was in,” he says. “Is he a squeegee man who has AIDS and is going to die in two weeks, or is he a bank president who has ten kids and is going to cost a fortune?” We stop at the building manager’s office. Sitting behind her large desk, Patricia thumbs through a file of her notes on the case as the superintendent, Gary, stands nearby. She tells Ed what he wants to know: Francesca Rodriguez8 was a sixty-six– year-old grandmother found dead in her kitchen after a fire burned down her next-door neighbor’s apartment.
“Was she disabled?” Ed asks.
“She was ambulatory,” Gary says. “She needed shots.”
“She had medical problems,” Ed says as he writes in his notebook. “Was she on public assistance? Welfare?”
“No,” Patricia says. “She worked her whole life. She’s retired.”
“Was she a nice lady?”
“She was a nice woman,” Patricia says forcefully. Ed rolls his eyes. “She was very good,” Patricia continues. “A concerned person.”
Patricia explains that the fire started around midnight a few days before, when Rodriguez’s neighbor was cooking pork chops or smoking a cigarette on the couch (her story keeps changing). As the fire spread, Rodriguez woke up, called for help, and then succumbed. Whether she succumbed to smoke inhalation or a heart attack was what Ed was here to figure out.
“How do we know she was awake?” Ed asks.
“Word of mouth from neighbors,” says Gary. “She came out to the terrace, saw the fire, and went back inside.”
“She panicked,” Patricia adds. The night of the fire the victim’s son told Patricia that he would “own this place. We’re going to sue the shit out of you.” Ed looks disgusted. “The woman wasn’t even cold yet,” he says, “and he was threatening people. I don’t think he had on his mind what he should have had.”
For Ed, the key issue is Rodriguez’s smoke alarm. If it worked properly, the building management met its legal requirement. Otherwise, they’ll have to pay big. As Patricia and Gary rummage through Rodriguez’s thick maintenance file to determine when her smoke alarm was last checked, we laugh about her neighbors. One threatened to sue for a smoke-damaged couch that she claimed cost $4,000. “If they have a couch that costs $4,000 they should sell it and move out of here,” Ed scoffs.
I could see the broad strokes but nothing of the emotional content of Rodriguez’s life: why she left Puerto Rico, who her best friends were, what happened to her children’s father. In two or three years, Ed will know more about her than I’d ever want to. Through endless depositions, he’ll learn what made her happy, how she spent her time. By then, even her children will be used to her death, and her life’s details will have one meaning: dollar values preceded by a plus or minus sign.
We ride a dirty, noisy elevator to a hallway stinking of charred wood. As we walk toward the smell, the beige walls gradually darken with soot; the thick metal doors leading to apartments have warped and melted. Inside the apartment where the fire started nothing stands higher than my ankles. The couch and dining-room table have burned away; the floor is a soggy black mass, the remains of everything that once was here. In the front hallway lies a round metal weight, the kind that gets attached to a barbell. I stare at it. Who was lifting weights? It seemed small, probably ten pounds. A woman then, or a child? Are they athletic, or was this bought in an optimistic moment and soon abandoned? It’s the only surviving clue about the people who live here.
Ed’s goal is to photograph the two smoke detectors. Gary locates their melted remains and Ed snaps away.
The woman who lives in this apartment got out and is fine. Francesca Rodriguez lived next door. The fire department has chained off her apartment, so Ed climbs onto the balcony and uses a window washer’s platform to sidle over to Rodriguez’s balcony. I stay behind but can see through her window. There’s no visible smoke damage, no hint of fire. It looks as if she has gone out shopping and will be right back. Drying towels hang on a small wooden rack, children’s toys are strewn about the kitchen floor. She died right there, next to the toys, from smoke inhalation or fear.
Ed climbs back and says, “This isn’t white-pants work.” I realize that his dark wardrobe is no accident. He’s around fires like this every day, in dead people’s homes every day, and yet he seems completely blase. I understand his detachment. When I come across a piece of tragedy, I immediately give it a value: it’s good for the story or it’s not. Such constant appraisal shields us both from sadness. It’s a lot easier to say, “Good, that’s my opening paragraph,” or, “Damn, that’s another hundred grand,” than to contemplate the loss of a grandmother’s love. Of course, I find value in pathos, whereas Ed wants the death to have no particular drama. “It’s like the bomber pilot. You’re not thinking that you’re killing somebody, you’re just dropping bombs. You don’t want to see the widow cry or the husband that lost a wife to a drunk driver. Oof, you can’t do that. Could you imagine,” he mocks mournfully, “`Somebody died again.’ It would destroy your whole day, maybe your whole week.”
As we head back to his car, I calculate how I would value Rodriguez if the management company were at fault. Her base is next to nothing: she wasn’t supporting anyone and she was sick. But the way she died was awful, and the toys indicate she was an active grandma. I write down a figure and ask Ed where he puts her value.
“Where she hits it big,” he says, “is if they can prove that she suffered for a period of time. She was conscious, worried.” He ewes me an estimate and then asks me not to publish it. I smile. I got it right.
In all of the United States, I found only one insurance company that attempts to take some of the callousness out of the profession. And so I go to INS Insurance in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to meet the apostles for “Empathic Adjusting.” INS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Schneider National, the nation’s largest trucking company. I drive through a pleasant stretch of Wisconsin farmland, where, in the midst of cornfields, the massive, blocky headquarters is surrounded by acres of parking lot. Inside, there’s a cultish feeling of devotion to the company. The staff speak reverently about their boss, Don Schneider-“His office is no bigger than anyone else’s”-and although I’ve come to talk about insurance, they insist I learn everything about trucking. Before I know it I’m behind the wheel of a gigantic tractor-trailer, speeding onto a skid pad-a parking-lot-sized surface that simulates an icy roadand spinning out of control.
It’s a small taste of what can happen to the more than 15,000 Schneider trucks that cruise American roads every day, racking up more than 2 billion miles a year. Small smashups occur every hour; nearly once every week, a Schneider truck somewhere kills somebody.
Enter Frank Stackhouse. Frank is a calm sweet man who radiates comfort-lush dark hair, thick mustache, soft lulling voice. He takes me out for beers on my first night in Green Bay. I have a list of things I want to cover: his childhood and army service, how he became an adjuster and created INS’s empathic program. I ask a question, he answers for a sentence or two, and then he gently asks me about myself. Suddenly, I realize I’ve been talking for twenty minutes and haven’t learned a thing about him. Later, Frank uses my life story to illustrate his points. Over the days I spend with him, I come to like and trust him, even though I realize that this emotional seduction saves the company millions by getting survivors to settle for less.
Most INS cases still end up as the sort of adversarial contests to which Ed and George are accustomed. The empathic program works only when adjusters develop a close relationship with the survivors, as they’ve been able to do in 20 percent of their death cases since the program began in 1993. The program, Frank says proudly, has saved INS several million dollars.
To spread his gospel, Frank distributes his booklet on empathic adjusting to other insurance companies. In it, he suggests that adjusters do exactly what they have been trained never to do: immediately visit survivors at the hospital or funeral home, apologize for the accident, and promise to help the family in every reasonable way. If the adjuster waits a few days, survivors harden under coaching by their attorneys. Once contact is made, the adjuster should call the family almost every day and attend and pay for the funeral.
The booklet has none of Frank’s charm. The adjuster, he writes, should “more fully identify [himself] as a ‘real person.’ This includes the sharing, as appropriate, by the company representative of some similar experiences in their own life and how those issues were approached.” In doing so, “opportunities may arise to identify areas of common interest such as family similarities, interests in similar hobbies or sports or regional ties.”
Robin Savage Barker doesn’t care how manipulative empathic adjusting seems. It works. Her husband, a driver for a different trucking company, was hit by a Schneider truck in 1994 and lingered for three weeks before he died. Frank called Robin within hours of the accident. She wouldn’t come to the phone”I thought he was the man who killed my husband,” she says– but Frank persisted and soon they talked almost every day. She came to trust him more than her own attorney, and they soon settled for millions less than several lawyers advised her she could have won at trial. If Frank hadn’t been so kind, so empathic, “I’d have really thrown my anger at him” and sued, she says. She believes, however, that a lawsuit would have mired her in years of mourning and rage. “If I did not have Frank helping me,” she says. “I don’t think I could have gotten through it.”
Of course, with all this tenderness between them, the adjuster might get soft, so every week Frank’s boss, Bob Lund, invites the entire staff to his office to assess the big cases. Bob’s a weight lifter-he was Mr. Minnesota in 1990-and has a nervous energy and forceful style entirely unlike Frank’s. Bob and I have a few quick, anxious conversations alone. Mostly he shakes his head, ignores my questions, and says, “It’s a tough business. It’s not easy.” I keep thinking that this athletic, high-earning father of three is worth a whole lot more than I am.
I then watch the INS team discuss two victims. They agree that a seventeen-year-old girl who died a few weeks ago is worth no more than $200,000. She was a working-class rural girl and was partly to blame for the accident. A comatose twenty-sevenyear-old surgery resident is worth at least seven figures whether she lives or dies. Her dying actually would be cheaper for INS; a lifetime of disability will cost far more.
When they’re done, I ask if they would value my life. The eight adjusters all laugh. They have never valued themselves or someone they know.
Bob claps his hands together in a let’s-get-started manner. “You live in Cook County,” he notes.
“Oh, Jeez,” says an adjuster named Mehdi, laughing.
“No dependents?” Bob asks. No.
“Did you die immediately, or did you suffer?” asks an adjuster named Larry.
Bob smiles smugly. “You were decapitated.” Then he asks, “What kind of upbringing did you have?” explaining that he likes to base a young person’s worth, in part, on the parents’ financial status and how much support the child would eventually be able to provide for them. I say that mine are artists, not well-off but culturally rich. Culture doesn’t make a difference, he says.
He asks how much I make a year. I say I’m a freelance writer; it varies. “Let’s say you’ll make 75 grand a year”-that’s when I laugh-“for thirty-five years. That’s $2.6 million. Reduce it to present cash value and it’s $1.3 million. But they’ll say you’d make $100,000 a year,” he says sarcastically. “They’d argue that you’d start your own magazine. I wouldn’t pay more than $1.6 million.”
My chest tightens. Frank gently adds that a marriage would add half a million; each kid, another $500,000. (If I were an outdoorsman, he says, my value would double. If I volunteered or went to synagogue, I’d go up 10 to 20 percent. If I called my mom and dad more, I could add $300,000 each.) But I’m consumed by my anger toward Bob.
And then it hits me. Adjusters can’t really be empathic, but their callous assessments do push survivors through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s requisite stages of grief. Breaking death down into dollars and cents makes it digestible not only to the marketplace but also to loved ones, who, in a world where faith is not always a comfort, rely on capitalism to find a silver lining in loss. We don’t like to see our values codified. There has been no grand debate about how best to place a monetary value on human life. We just hand this horrible job over to adjusters and demand that they come up with a figure. “Adjusters don’t think about it,” George says. “We just do it.”
1 Which is just how insurance companies like it. As Andrew Tobias notes in The Invisible Bankers, the insurance industry is among the most secretive in the world, refusing to release the most basic statistics, held to few regulations, and hiding predatory pricing schemes behind mind-numbing jargon and a sea of small type.
2 Most adjusters are male. Women are perceived as sympathizing too easily with survivors, though female adjusters argue that their sympathy builds trust with claimants who then settle for lower amounts.
3 Workers’ compensation is designed to circumnavigate the randomness of jury awards. Each state has set compensation rates for injuries and deaths on the job, and lawyers need only consult a handy chart that spells out, say, $50,000 for a knee, $4,000 for a thumb, $85,000 for an eye. Some reformers want auto accidents to be handled in the same way.
4 One adjuster parable purports that Southern Pacific Railroad became so weary of the notoriously large verdicts awarded by juries in Matagorda County, Texas, that the company just rerouted its trains.
5 Musters dread cases involving the Amish because they won’t file claims or witness reports, which can leave the case open. Adjusters hate open cases even more than they hate giving money away.
6 “If a man slays the dependent of a commoner, he shall pay [the commoner] 6 shillings compensation. If he slays a Iaet [a low-level freeman] of the best class, he shall pay 80 shillings; if he slays one of the second class, he shall pay 60 shillings; [for slaying one of] the third class, he shall pay 40 shillings,” and so forth.
7 Economists used to value Life based solely on earnings. But when the underlying assumptions-that women and minorities are worth less than white men; nonworking seniors and children are worth nothing-became unacceptable, the purchase-based valuing systern was put in place to shield economists from charges of racism or sexism, since women and minorities are the ones valuing their own lives lower. Still, basing someone’s value on what they spend rather than on what they earn seems like a distinction without much difference.
8 Because the case was still open at the time of this writing, all names have been changed.
Adam Davidson is a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life and Marketplace.