Appraising Tragedy

James Oliphant profiles Ken Feinberg, a lawyer who determines compensation for victims of national disasters:

Feinberg works hard not to be swayed by emotional appeals—and he tries as best he can to keep some distance. “You sob in private,” he says. “Never in front of a victim.” As a rule, he does not visit the sites of the tragedies to which he has been connected. He avoided the marathon finish line and the Sandy Hook campus. He didn’t inspect Ground Zero in Manhattan until after the claims process was finished, and he never returned. Nor does he make a habit of visiting claimants in the hospital; he makes them come to an office, to keep himself from becoming entangled in their despair.

He broke his rule in Boston when he visited two victims at a rehabilitation facility—and he regrets it now. The first man, he says, greeted Feinberg with bitterness: “You’re going to give me a million dollars or more,” he said. “I’ve got a better idea. Give me my leg back.” The second victim’s legs were stippled by shrapnel and gangrene, but he still had them. He had been lying in bed doing the math, and he had a simple question for Feinberg. Should he have his legs amputated before the July 1 deadline for determining his award? The difference in his payout would have been more than $1 million, tax free. Feinberg didn’t know what to say. The man decided to keep his legs—and received $948,300. The first man, who lost one leg, received $1,195,000. Feinberg walked out of the facility that day and vowed: Never again. “There have to be limits,” he says.

(Hat tip: Longform)