The Current

What's life worth? Ken Feinberg on victim compensation

Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, known as the Master of Disaster, has been charged over the years with deciding just how much a life is worth — compensating victims of tragedy.
Attorney Kenneth Feinberg has dealt with some of the biggest cases involving acts of terror and disasters to ever face the U.S., such as 9/11, BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Agent Orange. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Attorney Ken Feinberg, known as "the Pay Czar" and "the Master of Disaster," has the arduous job of assigning a dollar value to a life.

But he sees himself as an average citizen and says, "What I do is not rocket science."

The U.S. attorney is responsible for compensating victims of America's most tragic events — Agent Orange, the BP oil spill, Sandy Hook, 9/11.

I guarantee you that unless you have a heart of stone you will be impacted by what you hear.- Ken  Feinberg 

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, a compensation fund was created by Congress for the victims. Feinberg volunteered his services, pro-bono, and says speaking to the the hundreds of victims in this tragedy was "debilitating."

"You meet people face-to-face in confidence, and you invite them — who have suffered such terrible loss — to articulate anything they want to say," Feinberg tells The Current's Friday host Laura Lynch.

"I guarantee you that unless you have a heart of stone, you will be impacted by what you hear. The stories I heard were chilling."
Kenneth Feinberg's work is documented in Playing God, where filmmaker Karin Jurschick follows him through negotiations with victims of terror attacks. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Feinberg says determining a monetary value on lives that were lost in the towers is not difficult.

The amount is determined by judges and juries based on lost wages that person would have earned at work and then an added amount for pain and suffering — emotional distress.

But what is a challenge is when victims compare their compensation to others.

"[When] everybody counts other people's money, that is emotional," Feinberg explains.

He tells Lynch, the real issue is when a victim says, "Mr. Feinberg you're giving me $3 million but you gave my next door neighbor $4 million … You are tarnishing the memory of my dead wife.'"

It would be easier to give equal amounts out for compensation of a tragedy or disaster but "once you tie compensation to the voluntary willingness not to litigate, everybody has to get a different amount of money because everybody has different jobs, different commitments," Feinberg points out.

He notes his job is a real aberration. Many cases may come to him because of an inefficient system that takes too long to compensate people, but he he feels uncomfortable with the notion of using private independent compensation funds — "the wave of the future to promote justice."

"The idea that one person should have all of this authority to decide who's eligible and how much money they should get, and they can't go to court to challenge what I do. It's not sound public policy."

Feinberg's work is the subject the film, Playing God, premiering at Toronto's Hot Docs festival this Sunday, April 30.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.