If you think human life is priceless, you might be shocked to learn there are people whose job it is to put a price on it.

Chartered business valuators (often referred to simply as valuators) are the accounting minds responsible for figuring out the value of things that most people consider impossible to value and human life is just one dramatic example. While many valuations deal with traditional cases involving corporate holdings and assets, anything with a value can be valuated.

Remember baseball player Alex Rodriguez’s record-breaking 10-year, $252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers? Valuators’ calculations were instrumental in determining that breathtaking figure.

Dave Vert, a retired valuator who now teaches accounting at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, has dealt with many wrongful death cases in the past and says neutrality and an impassive approach are critical to a valuator’s work.

“Our job is to be dispassionate and objective. It’s not that we’re callous, it’s not that we don’t care, or that we pursue our work in an uncaring way, but in the end we have to allow our professional judgment and the facts speak. The only time our work is going to be valued and seen as credible is if it comes from that dispassionate, objective place.”

Vert once worked on a case where a wealthy head of a large manufacturing empire was killed, along with his son, in a plane crash. The son’s death left behind a wife and newborn child who had been wholly dependent on his income. A police investigation found the crash had been wholly the fault of pilot error by the father. The young widow sued the executive father’s estate and Vert was brought in with a team of valuators to assess potential compensation.

The main debate centred on just how much the young son could have been expected to earn — as a recent engineering graduate, his income could be estimated at a much lower rate than if his father had instead been grooming him to take over the family business. In the end, Vert’s team calculated several possible scenarios and both sides agreed to a settlement: $2 million to the young widow as spousal compensation and $100,000 to the young child, to be held in trust until the age of 18.

Michael Bowie, a partner at accounting firm KPMG LLP in Vancouver, agrees that the process of valuation is complex, especially because it is so speculative in nature, and speculation often leads to disagreement.

“Valuations can be subjective. They are not a hard and fast thing. The focus of a valuation is on what the future would be, so what you do is assess future possibilities and put a probability on them. Usually when there’s money involved, that tends to bring out not the best in people,” Bowie said.

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