What Is One Life Worth?

It's easy to put a price tag on a home, or a job or an investment. But what is the value of a human life?

One man had to answer that question for thousands of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. As the head of the U.S. government's Victims' Compensation Fund, Kenneth Feinberg had to place a dollar value on each and every life lost.

"In this system of civil justice in our country, for 200 years and more, we have always put a price on life," Feinberg told ABC News' John Stossel. "Juries every day in New York, every village and hamlet in this country, listen to the evidence and then place a value on an injury, on a death. It is the American way of compensating victims."

Man charged with unenviable task of determining compensation for 9/11 families.Play

But after 9/11, to avoid that civil justice system, Congress created a $7 billion fund to help victims' families and limit lawsuits.

"Congress felt that right after 9/11, there would be such national trauma associated with more lawsuits filed against the airlines, they became …convinced by the airlines, we'd better come up with a creative, statutory alternative and the 9/11 fund was that alternative," Feinberg said.

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The payments, he says, were based on "fair, consistent and transparent calculations."

"What would the victim have earned over a lifetime but for 9/11? How many dependents were left? Did the victim have a spouse? How much life insurance or other collateral income was received by the surviving family as a result of 9/11?"

In his book "What Is Life Worth," Feinberg explained the mathematical formula he used and how it worked. Take a single man, age 35, earning about $250,000 a year. He's worth $2.6 million. Add a wife? His worth increases to $4.2 million. Kids -- how about four -- now he's worth $4.6. There was a fixed amount, however, for pain and suffering: $250,000.

Not everyone was happy with the formula, which Feinberg says he understands.

"You're putting numbers on people who died or were horribly disfigured. It is a difficult assignment," he said. "I did the best I could."

Charles Wolf's wife of 12 years was killed on 9/11. Katherine Wolf worked on the 97th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, and after her death Wolf became an instant critic of Feinberg and the fund, creating a protest group called Fix the Fund.

9/11 Lawsuits: 'Punishing Those That Failed'

Wolf claimed that Feinberg's formula was out of date and didn't take into consideration things like the fact that that he and his wife had started a business together. But Wolf's main issue was with Feinberg himself.

"He was dealing with the families like he would deal with fellow lawyers and it was not good," Wolf said.

Feinberg was criticized for being cold to families at first.

"I told families that came to see me … I'm not a magician. I can't bring your wife back or your son back or your father back," he said. "All I can do is what the statute allows me to do -- provide you compensation. One less thing to worry about. The rest of life's unfairness, you move on as best you can."

But after many months of meeting with families, Wolf says that Feinberg became "more compassionate."

"It was at that time that I threw my support behind him," Wolf said, and he ultimately accepted the fund money.

"Did I get as much as I had hoped for? I will tell you that, no I didn't. But I will tell you this, that once this was over, it was a huge weight off my back," Wolf said.

Mike Low of Arkansas lost his daughter Sarah, a flight attendant on U.S. flight 11, which struck the north tower. He can't say the same.

"9/11 is with me seven days a week," he said. "It's pervasive. I have tried every method I know to shove it aside because I was living the American dream. Great friends, great job, beautiful family, success with my company. But 9/11's there every day."

Low chose not to take the fund money and filed a lawsuit against U.S. Air and Colgan Air, the security company at Logan airport, among others. He says it's not just about getting more money, but about "punishing those that failed terribly on 9/11. They allowed these 19 thugs to get on four flights and murder my Sarah and all these other people, plunge our country into chaos and it will happen again. There's no accountability. There's no one been fired."

After other terrorist attacks, such as Pan Am 103, Low says victims who sued were awarded up to $10 million each, and "for me as a parent to accept something less for my daughter denigrates her history, her value."

Measuring the Value of a Life

Jim Riches, a New York City retired deputy fire chief, lost his son Jimmy, also a firefighter, when the towers collapsed. Riches did recovery work at ground zero for almost a year and on March 25, 2002, they found his son's remains.

Riches wanted to make someone accountable, but lawyers persuaded him to take the fund money. Riches felt the money offered was unfair; because his son was single and didn't make a lot of money, he was worth less.

"Everybody's equal," he said. "The rich guy down on Wall Street is no better than my son who was a fireman. My pain is just as much as everybody's pain. They died the same death. I saw all the bodies down there. They died the same way. Everything should be the same."

"What they're doing is valuing what you, what that person would have earned in their lifetime," Wolf said. "It's not a payment for life, not at all. There's no way that you can place a value on a human life."

But that's not exactly true. Every day the government puts a dollar value on life. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency put the "statistical value of life" at $6.9 million. Other government agency numbers are less -- $5.8 million and $5 million. These figures are not based on what people earn, they're based on how much money people are willing to pay to take certain risks with their lives -- like working in a dangerous job, or living with pollution.

"There is no dollar value for a life, so economists have made up -- and I think made up is the right phrase -- values for what they think a life is worth," said Tufts university economist Frank Ackerman, author of the book "Priceless." "You can't really go up to somebody and say, how much would you pay to not be killed right now? That. ... That's not a very useful question to ask. "

Ackerman said the better question is "what would you pay to avoid a one in a million risk of dying? You get an answer to that, and then you could multiply it by a million and say, that's the value of a life."

The individuals who have filed 9/11 lawsuits say that someone must be held responsible for the loss of their loved ones lives.

"For 9/11, given what these airlines failed to do on Sept. 11, by letting 19 for 19 hijackers through checkpoints in four airports, Portland, Logan, Newark and Dulles -- these airlines should be primarily responsible," said attorney Don Migliori, who is representing Low. "There was no need to set up a federal fund in my view, to compensate those claims."

Moving Forward

"We're not trying to bankrupt anybody," Migliori said. "We're trying to get people what they need. For somebody who wants answers, we are going to go after every single answer we can find from these airlines. And if it means we use up every bit of their insurance company's coverage, so be it. … We're proud of what we do, we're proud of who we represent and we're proud of how we do it."

Feinberg is also proud of what he's done, and says he feels it's appropriate that he received no payment for his work .

"I felt good about representing the people of the United States in doing this. And payment wasn't really an issue, it seems to me," Feinberg said.

Still, he says he struggled with the job.

"These are decisions that no one person in American history has ever been asked to make. The statute delegated almost unfettered discretion for me to place values on each claim. Difficult? Very, very difficult."

For the families who lost loved ones, they are trying to move on.

"We would take our loved ones back in a minute and take nothing," Riches said.

"I was not going to let them get the rest of my life," Wolf said. "What was important for me was to do something that I could emotionally move on, OK, and not have to deal with this thing for years and years and years. "

Five years after filing his lawsuit, Low is still waiting for his day in court.

"I have no choice," he said. "It's something I can do for my daughter. I have no choice. … The only thing I can do as a parent is try to push to make sure that my Sarah's value is not established at something lower than our country and our system has already put out there."