What is the value of a human life? Insurance executives and safety analysts deal with this question regularly, but for most people, it’s difficult to say how much a life is worth — especially one as extraordinary as that of Marie Colvin.
n 2012, American journalist Marie Colvin was killed while covering the siege of Homs, Syria, for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. Four years later, Colvin’s family filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government, claiming Syrian officials used intercepted satellite phone signals to target and kill her. The case received significant media coverage, and Colvin’s story was retold in the 2018 biographical feature film “A Private War.”
In 2017, FTI Consulting was approached for assistance in calculating the economic losses for the case by Henry Weisburg, a senior partner at Shearman & Sterling, and the Center for Justice and Accountability (“CJA”). The task, however, would prove extremely complex, requiring the development of a unique valuation model for the life of a war correspondent.
A formidable task
Colvin was not your average American citizen. Nor was she just another foreign correspondent working abroad. Her trademark black eyepatch, which she wore after losing her left eye to a Sri Lankan Army rocket-powered grenade, was a testament to her courage and selflessness in bearing witness to conflict around the globe.
In 1999, in East Timor, Colvin was credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children who were besieged in a compound by Indonesian-backed forces. While 22 journalist colleagues evacuated, Colvin stayed behind with an unarmed United Nations force and continued to report on the women and children until they were rescued four days later.
Colvin was twice named Foreign Reporter of the Year (2001 and 2010) in the British Press Awards. In 2000, she received an International Women's Media Foundation Award for Courage in Journalism for her coverage of Kosovo and Chechnya and was also named Journalist of the Year by the Foreign Press Association.
How does one begin to calculate the economic value of Colvin’s life? The usual due diligence of reviewing estate accounts, financial securities statements, tax documents and employer policies provided a starting point. However, it was crucial for FTI to consider every relevant aspect of her life and understand the industry she worked for. To fully quantify the economic losses arising from Colvin’s premature death, FTI had to develop a unique model based on primary research and information specific to her situation.
Quantifying the risk of conflict zones
The task was unprecedented: Create an entirely original model to estimate the probability of a foreign correspondent being killed in a war zone. It would also be important to consider her celebrity as an award-winning war correspondent and the supplemental income-generating opportunities that may have come her way.
To create a war zone risk model, FTI made a baseline assumption gleaned from government health statistics that Colvin would normally have been expected to live until age 84. The next task was to calculate the annual average probability of death as a foreign correspondent working in a conflict zone.
Coming up with this measurement required considerable research to determine:
• The average annual number of American foreign correspondents and reporters killed globally per year on dangerous assignments, from data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists;
• The total number of full-time foreign correspondents employed by U.S. newspapers, taken from the American Journalism Review; and
• The approximate number of full-time foreign correspondents working on dangerous assignments as compared to all full-time foreign correspondents, and what portion of the year they were in dangerous situations.
A missed retirement plan
At the time of her death, Colvin had expressed no public thoughts of retirement – quite the contrary. Both her sister and employer stated that they believed she would have worked for as long as possible. Because Colvin never talked about her retirement, available data and personal judgment had to be used to determine what her retirement years might have looked like. The goal was to ensure the war zone risk adjustment was applied only to the years prior to her retirement.
Based on the statements of people close to Colvin, her employer’s retirement plan documents, an analysis of retirement ages and relevant laws in the UK, it was deemed she might have retired at either 65 or 70. FTI provided valuations for each, and the judge accepted the report for a retirement age of 70.
Final calculations and outcome
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The expert opinion FTI provided was only one small part of the painstakingly thorough case that CJA and Shearman & Sterling presented to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District of Columbia. Based on a gross earnings approach, projections related to Colvin’s employment, and adjustments based on the war zone risk model, the economic loss of her death totaled $2.3 million. The Court requested a “net loss” model incorporating an adjustment for “personal consumption,” resulting in an economic loss of $1.1 million.
The net loss figure was added to the $300 million in punitive damages assessed by Judge Jackson due to the “outrageous” nature of the extrajudicial killing. While the Syrian government declined to participate in the proceedings, the punitive award is not merely symbolic. Weisburg’s legal team will be attempting to collect the judgment from various extraterritorial Syrian assets on behalf of the Colvin family members who are beneficiaries of her estate.
While the case was a success in terms of justice for Colvin’s family, it scarcely balances the reality that the international journalism community and free societies around the world have lost a true hero. Indeed, Marie Colvin and the legacy she leaves behind will be always remembered and revered.
A version of this article originally appeared in Consulting Magazine