Life Is Priceless

Tré Kitchens Commentary

Life Is Priceless

Next week my youngest daughter starts kindergarten. She’s 5. We talk about what she wants to be when she grows up. So far an artist and a vet are at the top of the list. Her life is filled with hope and promise and opportunity.

Now, corporate lobbyists and the big money behind them are pushing a ballot initiative that would tell me and her mother that if the unthinkable happened, my child’s life — which, like those of all children, is so full of promise — would be worth less than the homes these same lobbyists and CEOs live in or the amount of money they make in a year.

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Known as Issue 1 on the ballot, this proposed amendment to our state’s Constitution places an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all cap on the damages a jury can award when there has been a loss of life or a limb or some other tragedy.

My wife doesn’t work outside the home. She keeps up with our three daughters and me (the bigger job by far). So she doesn’t have an income you can see on a tax return. Under Issue 1 her life could never be valued at more than the same $500,000 limit.

The same will be true for the elderly who no longer work.

Under this law my life is worth more than the children, the stay-at-home moms, the college students, the disabled and the elderly in Arkansas because I have an income you can see on paper. A loss of income would fall under economic damages, but the loss of life, mobility, dignity and so much more would fall under “noneconomic” damages, and Issue 1 says those losses could never be worth more than $500,000 regardless of the horrors of the situation.

If Issue 1 passes, corporations, hospitals, insurance companies and nursing homes can price the value of a human life into the cost of doing business. They will know that if a grandmother dies of neglect because the nursing home was understaffed, it will cost them only $500,000 at the most. Then the math comes into play, and if the nursing home can save more money by understaffing than the $500,000 claims will cost, the nursing home will save the money and our elderly will pay the ultimate price.

The rules of law have taught us that the threat of significant consequences serves as a deterrent to wrongdoers. Do any of us really believe that if a nursing home’s worst judgment in court could never exceed $500,000 that our nursing homes will get better?

Good nursing homes will continue to serve their patients well, but it’s not the good ones we are worried about. If you remove the threat of a substantial penalty for wrongdoing, then bad nursing homes will only get worse. In Texas, after a similar law was passed, nursing home care is now ranked 50th out of the 50 states.

If passed, Issue 1 will take power away from the people and put it in the hands of the corporate interests and lobbyists who spend millions to influence the legislative process.

Why restrict the rights and powers of citizens and local jury members, but expand the powers of big money influencers playing politics? Surely we can trust our local juries. If we can trust a jury to determine whether a defendant will receive the death penalty, then surely a jury can be trusted to hear all the facts of a case and determine whether a company should pay money for injuring or killing someone.

Not only would this amendment prevent juries from giving appropriate judgments, but it also would move all the rule-making of court proceedings to the Arkansas Legislature. This will subject court rules to the political process, which all too often has been tainted by corruption.

If adopted, Issue 1 will place a one-size-fits-all, arbitrary cap on the value of a human life in the Arkansas Constitution. If passed, it will strip power from local juries and tip the balance of power toward large corporate interests and away from families, farmers and small businesses. If passed, it says that the life of a college student, a child, a retired veteran are all worth less than others. If Issue 1 is passed, nursing home patients will be in more danger and at greater risk for abuse. If passed, careless practitioners who violate the rules and cause permanent damage can never truly be held accountable — even if they cause lifelong disability.

Issue 1 is wrong for Arkansas. Life is priceless and our rights too precious. In November, vote against Issue 1.

Tré Kitchens is an attorney with the Brad Hendricks Law Firm in Little Rock. Email him at