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SVCF 2019 2019 Annual Report
Our Work

A Win for Racial Equity in the Courts

Thanks to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, California took a step to ensure that courts can’t systematically decide that the life of a white person is worth more money than that of an African American or Latinx person.

At the end of July 2019, Newsom signed Senate Bill 41, bringing to an end a practice in which the legal system deliberately and explicitly used gender and race to determine how much compensation victims and families receive in civil cases involving injury or death.

“This breakthrough legislation will help ensure victims and their families — no matter their race or gender — get their fair share in court, and it will also prevent corporate ‘risk-assessment’ decisions from hurting communities of color,” says Gina Dalma, Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s executive vice president for community action, policy and strategy.

The new law will bring greater equity to civil damage awards by banning the use of biased statistical tables used by forensic economists to predict an individual’s lifetime worth, following death or injury.

44%

of economists say they consider race when calculating civil damages

92%

of economists say they consider gender when calculating civil damages

As we wrote previously, “Today, when juries award damages to victims or their families to compensate them for being injured or killed, they routinely award women, African Americans and Latinx smaller amounts of compensation than they do to white men, based on the notion that, as a group, people of color and women are likely to earn less money in their lifetime, to die younger, or both.” 

Authored by Sen. Robert Hertzberg, who represents the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, the bill became law on Jan. 1, 2020.

SVCF began advocating for this change in 2017, when we provided funding for a report on discrimination in civil damages from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. We also lobbied on behalf of the bill and worked closely with Hertzberg’s office and Robert Johnson, a forensic economist who testified before the judiciary committee, offering real-world examples of how this bias plays out in the courtroom. 

“There are still so many instances of racial, gender and ethnic injustice within the structures of our society, and this work shined a light on one of them,” Dalma says. “Philanthropy is at its best when it brings people together to solve these kinds of injustices with systemic solutions.”

Read our earlier blog on discrimination in civil damages here, and read the Lawyers’ Committee report (How Race, Gender and Ethnicity Impact Your Life’s Worth) here.

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