- Why do we punish someone who didn’t mean to hurt someone else?
- Why are damages for pain and suffering okay?
Punishment v. Personal Responsibility
Deeply embedded in the values of this country is the idea of personal responsibility.
The roots of the American civil justice system go all the way back to the law of Moses.
If you break something, if you cause harm, if you did something wrong and it hurt someone, you make it right, even if you didn’t do it intentionally. Personal injury suits do not punish the person who hurt the victim, they merely hold the wrongdoer accountable for the harm caused. Punishment is what criminal law accomplishes. We buy insurance to cover our negligence, but there is no insurance for criminal acts. Negligence is compensated by money equal to the harm. Criminal acts are punished by imprisonment.
The law in a personal injury case tries to make the victim of wrongdoing “whole.” What the legal system means by “whole” is that we are trying to give back to injured person the value of what was negligently taken. Unfortunately, courts do not have rewind buttons that can undo such harms. Until someone invents that machine and places it at the disposal of a court, we must make do with a different, less perfect form of justice. What that means is we have to evaluate specific injuries and decide how much they are worth to the person who used to be healthy.
Why pay for pain and suffering?
Okay, since we are just requiring personal responsibility for harm done unintentionally, and not punishing the negligent party, why does the law require payment for pain and suffering? Because righting the wrong requires more than just paying the medical bills and lost wages, and there is a very good reason for that. Most people have heard and agree with the statement “Life is not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.” Taking away someone’s ability to enjoy life, replacing their favorite activities with pain and inconvenience, does serious and irreparable harm to that person. There is no way to give back the time lost to the pain. There is no way to give back a healthy, undamaged body part. There is no way to rewind the clock and return the pleasures of life that have been wrongfully taken.
Human history is full of examples of cultures trying to deal with this very problem. Many societies initially chose the “eye for an eye” system, but that did nothing for the person harmed. In Exodus 21 and 22 the Bible provides for damages in injury cases. Exodus 21:18-19 (NIV)—“If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.” Notice the language says loss of time—not loss of wages, but loss of time. Time lost working, time lost getting treatment, time lost sitting around instead of doing one’s favorite activities, time lost with one’s children, time lost because doing the dishes takes twice as long due to pain—it’s all covered by the concept of lost time.
America has decided that justice in an injury case requires looking at the victims’ injuries, looking at their pain, looking at how they have been limited, looking at the harm done, and then use money to “compensate” or to “balance” the harm suffered by an equivalent value of money. Although this is as an imperfect solution, this is close to the biblical concept of “loss of time.” The Founding Fathers concluded that this is the fairest way to deal with the problem of people hurting other people. Recognizing the fact that each individual is precious, unique, and invaluable, the 7th Amendment forever guards every person’s right to a jury trial:
“In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.” – – The 7th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
For more information on the biblical basis for the American civil justice system, check out these resources: