Can Money Relieve Grief?
Is this Amelia Earhart's lost plane, the Electra?
A grainy sonar image captured off an uninhabited tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati might represent the remains of the famous aviator's plane, according to The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating Earhart's last, fateful flight.
Earhart was piloting the Electra, a two-engine plane, in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator, when she vanished on July 2, 1937.
The researchers had already identified a small debris field of objects at a depth of 200 feet in the waters of Nikumaroro island, some 300 miles southeast of Earhart's target destination, Howland Island.
The site features objects that appear consistent with analysis made by TIGHAR forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman of a grainy 1937 photograph of Nikumaroro's western shoreline by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington.
TIGHAR postulates that flood tides lifted the Electra and carried it over the reef edge, leaving behind the landing gear, which was inadvertently photographed by Officer Bevington three months later in October 1937.
A new twist in the search occurred last March when Richard Conroy, a member of TIGHAR's online Amelia Earhart Search Forum, spotted an anomaly in a sonar map posted online.
As it becomes increasingly certain that Malaysian Airline Flight 370 crashed into the southern Indian Ocean after disappearing more than two weeks ago, talk has turned to compensation for families of the missing passengers.
The airline has already given $5,000 of the $176,000 that an international treaty requires it to pay to each family, according to news reports. Lawsuits will likely go after many millions more from both the airline and possibly also from Boeing, which built the plane.
Will that money make any difference for grieving families?
Cash clearly can't bring loved ones back. But, experts said, financial restitution goes a long way towards helping people cope with traumatic losses -- though in an international case like this, comfort might be tainted by glaring disparities in how much courts in different countries are willing to demand for relatives left behind.
"There is some form of closure that is attained by most families in getting an answer that the legal process can provide them and having an airline or manufacturer accept responsibility by making a compensation payment to recognize the loss," said lawyer Dan Rose of Kreindler & Kreindler, which specializes in aviation accidents. "It's saying,'It was our fault and this is all we can do to make your life better at this point.'"
"Some people want it over with quickly and are more likely to resolve cases like this," he added. "For others, it becomes part of their quest for answers and accountability. They want their day in court to let the world know what happened and that it shouldn't happen again."
When commercial airplanes crash, it is common practice for airlines to give money to relatives of victims who die in the accident. And while some families accept what they get, many end up suing for more on the basis that the airline was negligent and should've prevented the accident from happening.
Exactly how much money families get after tragedies like this depends on many factors, including the salaries of the deceased, the state or country they came from, and the severity of the negligence, Rose said. For families who are able to take their cases to court in the United States, payouts may reach $5 million or more, Rose said, though laws in some states are more generous than others. In China, compensation could be less than $100,000 per passenger. Malaysia falls somewhere in between.
One rationale for compensation under American law is that it helps families cope with the financial hardship of losing a relative. While grieving, people often need to miss work, arrange travel, and pay for funeral services, among other costs. They lose the income the deceased person would have brought in for the rest of their working lives. On top of all that, there is the ambiguous cost that comes with intense emotional suffering.
Money can go a long way towards helping people cope with traumatic loss.Getty Images
Legally, financial restitution also aims to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. A few decades ago, aviation disasters occurred once or twice every year, Rose said. Today, plane crashes are rare, in part because of the legal pressure to comply with safety regulations.
No one has studied exactly how compensation affects the grieving process, but research suggests that people fare better psychologically if they feel like they’ve gotten a fair shake from the legal system, said Camille Wortman, a psychologist who specializes in traumatic bereavement at Stony Brook University in New York.
In her 30 years of experience with wrongful death cases, Wortman has seen, time and again, that financial compensation gives family members a sense that justice has been served and that the lives of their loved ones have been recognized.
"People want it acknowledged that something important has been taken away and if people had been doing their job right, it wouldn't have happened," she said. "That can be healing."
Wortman has been repeatedly surprised to see that people don't usually buy mansions and yachts after receiving financial compensation for the traumatic loss of family members. Instead, they often devote some of the money to helping others who have been through something similar or to prevent the same kind of thing from happening elsewhere.
In one case in the late 1990s, a railroad company was deemed negligent for failing to install warning lights and crossing gates, which resulted in the deaths of several teenagers in Ohio. The parents of one of the boys used their $5 million settlement to start a foundation that promotes railroad safety and awareness.
When people lose wrongful death cases, on the other hand, the emotional results can be devastating.
"A negative verdict can really be a slap in the face to people who have already been knocked down," Wortman said. "It's the court saying, 'Your daughter's life meant nothing.' That's the message being conveyed."