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Kenneth Feinberg says disaster compensation funds should be used sparingly

Kenneth Feinberg, who has been named one of America’s most influential lawyers, speaks at in the Great Hall at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport on Thursday.
Kenneth Feinberg, who has been named one of America’s most influential lawyers, speaks at in the Great Hall at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport on Thursday.
Published Mar. 30, 2012

How do you place a monetary value on a human life?

Kenneth Feinberg has had to consider that question a lot over the last decade or so. He has administered the victim compensation funds set up following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Virginia Tech shooting and the BP oil spill.

The answer isn't easy, he said.

It was hard to satisfy everyone, and every case was different.

"You cannot win," Feinberg told a crowd of about 100 law students and professors at Stetson University College of Law on Thursday.

He spoke about the challenges of determining how much money to give to families of fallen heroes and college students killed on their way to class.

Feinberg, who was appointed to these programs by federal officials, said he and his legal team spent months following each disaster sifting through thousands of legal claims and determining how best to settle them.

Who gets the money, the parents or the fiance? And how much do you give to someone who was injured rather than killed?

In his lecture, titled "Unconventional Responses to Unique Catastrophes: Tailoring the Law to Meet the Changes," Feinberg pointed out that the compensation programs set up following those events were unprecedented.

Congress didn't create a fund of taxpayers' money for the victims of the first terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993. Victims claiming damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 were still in litigation two decades later, he said.

While he thinks the programs created after Sept. 11, the BP oil spill and the federal bailout in 2008 were effective, he doesn't think they will become a common legal response to national disasters.

"These programs are precedent for nothing," Feinberg said. "They are better viewed from the department of history rather than a law school."

Bad things happen to good people every day, he said. And in a country that prides itself on equal treatment for all, the government and big corporations like BP have to be very careful in writing generous rules that provide special treatment to some and not all.

Victims of other disasters such as the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina didn't get a compensation program, he said.

The compensation funds were created following unique disasters and pushed forward with political momentum. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, for example, was set up to show the world how Americans take care of their own, he said. It was "vengeful philanthropy."

"These programs — once policy makers decide to do them — they work," Feinberg said. "They deliver what they are supposed to deliver and they're the right thing to do under the circumstances. Just don't do them again."

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