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Calculating the cost of lost lives

Peter Dahl
March 27, 2015

The disbelief is still too overwhelming, the grief and pain almost suffocating. The relatives of the Germanwings crash victims will receive compensation - but it may not be a lot, and it will depend on many factors.

Candles and model airplane at vigil in Cologne/Bonn airport (Photo: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay)
Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

Tuesday's nightmare in the French Alps has left behind a deafening echo of incredulity. With every new scrap of evidence, another question arises. As investigators continue their tireless effort put together the pieces, a silhouette of what happened in those fateful last minutes is beginning to emerge.

A torn-up doctor's note, a locked cockpit door, eight minutes of silence followed by screams, then a thunderous crash. So far, the clues all point in one direction: A 28-year-old co-pilot with a death wish, slave to a mental illness he'd hidden from his employer.

How could this happen? Why was Andreas Lubitz allowed to be left alone in the cockpit? How could they fail to notice he was sick? Did Germanwings do enough to prevent this?

A question of blame

These are not just questions that haunt us as we try to make sense of the tragedy. These are questions that will haunt the Lufthansa subsidiary in the weeks and months ahead, as lawyers and insurance agents try to settle the legal issue of who's to blame - and answer one question no one wants to ask: How much is a life really worth? Can you put a price on pain?

The hard truth is that in a crash like this, the answer is, most likely, around 145,000 euros (158,000 dollars). This is the amount an airline is liable for in the case of a passenger death under the international agreement known as the Montreal Convention of 1999.

According to German aviation lawyer Gundo Spinner, this is also the most the victims' relatives are likely to ever get.

The Hamburg-based expert says that because Andreas Lubitz appears to have acted deliberately, Germanwings cannot legally be held responsible for his actions.

"The only person who can be held responsible is the pilot himself, but he's dead. That leaves only his heirs - in this case probably his parents - who, in theory, could accept liability on his behalf," opening the possibility of a lawsuit, Spinner said.

"But why should they accept liability, if they know they're going to get financially clobbered? If they're smart, they'll reject his inheritance, and that would be the end of it."

Joseph König school memorial (Photo: Maja Hitij/dpa)
Lost parents theoretically result in more compensation than lost childrenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Maja Hitij

No room for emotions

Is 145,000 euros how much it takes to fill the void left by the loss of a loved one? Most would say, you can't possibly put a price tag on something like this. But for many, the amount doesn't come close to compensating for the anger and pain.

However, Spinner said the German legal system leaves very little room for emotions.

"The bereaved aren't paid damages because they've suffered an emotional injury, but because they have to adjust to a new life. The money is meant to cover the material costs connected with this transition. The only question is: What are the additional expenditures facing the surviving relatives?"

The fact that Flight 4U 9525 crashed on French soil isn't likely to change the relatives' legal standing either, Spinner said. In cases like this, "the European legal systems hardly differ," he noted.

So far, the airline has vehemently denied that it knew anything about the co-pilot's health record. But what if evidence emerges that proves the company was otherwise negligent?

"If someone can prove that Germanwings knowingly ignored the law, this would make it an accomplice," and that would change everything, Spinner predicted - and unearth some uncomfortable truths about the legal system.

For starters, while most of the passengers on board the Airbus A320 from Barcelona to Düsseldorf were German and Spanish, they also included citizens from Argentina, Australia, Japan, Morocco, and the US. This means the carrier could be subject to lawsuits in countries where damages are treated much differently than in Germany.

"Some could press charges in US courts, which are famous for awarding exorbitant damages," sometimes as high as several hundred million dollars, Spinner said.

Crash site, Le Vernet (Photo: Daniel Naupold/dpa)
Investigators face an arduous task of gathering evidence at the crash site.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Naupold

Uncomfortable truth

But for some, it would also be a rude awakening. For instance, for the parents of the 16 students from Germany's Joseph König High School in Haltern, whose lives were abruptly cut short as they were flying back from a school exchange trip to Barcelona.

Because of the way damages are calculated, these mothers and fathers would be entitled to less compensation than a housewife with a small baby who had lost her CEO husband.

That's because courts factor in things like the diseased's income, age, and how long they would have had to financially support their families, had they still been alive. Cynically speaking, this leaves the judge with the following equation: how much does a family suffer financially from losing a father compared to losing a daughter?

The clinical answer is: more. From an insurance agent's perspective, a family that loses a daughter has one person less to support, which leaves it with more money. A family that loses a father, on the other hand, usually loses a breadwinner, which leaves it with less money. Hence, the damage to the latter is greater.

It's a perverse logic that none of those affected can ever be expected to understand. And one they probably won't have to, said Spinner.

Already, Lufthansa has committed to abide by the Montreal Convention, which could end up costing it some 21 million euros.

"We will be able to meet the financial liabilities. Our first priority is to help the families where we can," pledged the carrier's Chief Executive Carsten Spohr.

But Spinner doesn't expect it to do more than that: "They probably won't pay more than they have to, because doing so would suggest guilt."

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