Friday, August 19, 2005

Incomprehensible Numbers

$253 Million. Roll that around in your mind. Try to picture that in dollar bills. Imagine that as almost $1 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Whatever image you get is going to be too small. The human mind just can not comprehend that number as it really is.

In this case, there is no way that the jury that awarded that judgement had a true appreciation of that number. How does that number compare to the allegedly concealed additional risk of heart attack associated with Vioxx? How does the number 253 millions of dollars compare to the entirety of the Merck corporation. There is really no conceptual difference once the number hits about 10 million. Beyond that point its like comparing falling 100 ft or 1000 ft, the result is no different.

If civil penalties are to have any real meaning any more, I would recommend the change that penalties be expressed as a percent of a company's profits or cash reserves or some other number that is publicly available. A percentage is easily pictured, and it will force jurors to face whether or not the damage incurred is worth destroying the corporation, which the raw number just does not communicate.

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