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Courts, Lawyers Struggle To Place Price Tag On Crash Victims’ Lives

October 2, 1988

DETROIT (AP) _ The varied and complex lives of the people killed in the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 are being run through statistical tables and computers as lawyers seek compensation for the victims’ families.

Some of the attorneys handling the 111 suits stemming from the Aug. 16, 1987, crash near Detroit Metropolitan Airport have estimated that settlements with Northwest and McDonnell Douglas Corp., the plane’s manufacturer, could reach $250 million.

In all, 156 people died in the crash. One passenger, a 4-year-old girl, survived.

Those estimates are derived from what some lawyers concede is an imprecise and sometimes intrusive process of evaluating a victim’s life.

″In many ways you are following a table,″ said David Bunin, a Philadelphia-based actuarial consultant and a specialist in personal injury cases. ″It’s not really the value of a person that we’re determining, but lost earning capacity, value of future support, monetary support.″

″Many countries provide extensive social services to people who are injured or families who have lost their primary support,″ said David Katzman, a Birmingham lawyer whose firm is handling about two dozen of the Flight 255 suits pending in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

″In this country, social services are minimal by comparison and that’s why you hire lawyers and go to court to protect yourself.″

Three lawsuits stemming from the crash have been settled without trial. The amounts of those settlements are sealed under court orders.

Negotiations can take a less decorous turn when attorneys begin citing factors such as school records, medical data and employment history in seeking settlements.

But some of the Flight 255 victims’ survivors said they had no alternative but to try to take part in the settlement process.

″You have a lot of feelings of anger, resentment, helplessness and torture to see this sort of haggling,″ said Lisa Recker of Dearborn, whose brother, Kurt Dombronski, died in the crash. ″I think it’s obscene for one person to put a price tag on another human being.

″It’s cruel to the survivors and the memory of the person, but that’s the way our legal system works,″ she said.

″There could never be enough dollars in the world to give me back what I want,″ said Betty Polec of Mount Clemens, whose pregnant daughter and son-in- law died in the crash. ″But that is the only recourse I have right now.

″I feel that if the family does not institute a lawsuit, they are forgiving (Northwest and McDonnell Douglas) and patting them on the back,″ she said.

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