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Jaahnavi Kandula: Racial Bias in Legal Valuations

Vigil for Jaahnavi Kandula

On a January day this year in Seattle, Jaahnavi Kandula, a 23-year-old Indian graduate student, tragically lost her life when she was struck by a police car in a busy crosswalk. The officer was driving 63 miles per hour without a continuous siren while responding to a drug overdose call, and the street had a normal speed limit of 25 miles per hour. A day after Jaahnavi Kandula was fatally struck, another officer, Daniel Auderer– a “drug recognition expert” – was sent to see if the officer whose vehicle hit her had been impaired. Auderer responded to the scene and found no impairment in the officer but made callous remarks about Jaahnavi Kandula’s death, sparking outrage, particularly within the South Asian community. In the footage, Officer Daniel Auderer laughs, suggesting a mere $11,000 in compensation for the incident, saying, “She was 26 anyway” and “she had limited value.”

In response to an investigation of his actions, Officer Auderer wrote to the city’s Office of Police Accountability and attempted to flip the script. He wrote, “I was imitating what a lawyer tasked with negotiating the case would be saying and being sarcastic to express that they shouldn’t be coming up with crazy arguments to minimize the payment.” The officer was reassigned but is yet to be fired despite outcries and rallies demanding justice for Kandula.

The public widely condemned Auderer’s comments – particularly the reference to Kandula’s supposedly “limited value” and mistaken reference to her age – as insensitive and demanded accountability for the officer. Kandula’s story, marked by dreams, laughter, and untapped potential, is emblematic of a disturbing trend observed by critical legal and economic theorists: the persistence of racial devaluation in legal damages despite societal advances.

Professor Martha Chamallas’ work on social justice in tort law is central to the discourse on racial devaluation. She critically analyzes forensic economics’ role in perpetuating inequality through the law. At the heart of Chamallas’ argument is the early 20th-century case of Griffin v. Brady, in which George Griffin, an African-American man, was awarded a measly $300 in a false imprisonment lawsuit. The decision on damages was marred by racial bias. Justice Durgo explicitly considered Griffin’s race as he reduced the damages amount, saying Griffin “would not be hurt just as much if put in prison as every man would be.” He explained that the impact of wrongful imprisonment “depends on a man’s standing, what his circumstances are, and if he is a colored man, the fact that he is a colored man is to be considered.” Ultimately, Justice Drugo considered Griffin’s life and standing to be worth less than that of a white man and decided on this basis that he deserved shockingly low damages.

Like Griffin v. Brady, the recent death of Jaahnavi Kandula and Officer Auderer’s comments illustrate how racial bias impacts legal valuations. These cases, using Yale law professor Reva Siegel’s words, exemplify the theory of “preservation through transformation.” This concept suggests that, while discrimination may evolve and even lessen over time, its core prejudices and hierarchies can remain deeply embedded within societal structures, including the legal system. The shift from explicit and outright stated racial bias in cases like Griffin’s to more covert expressions in incidents like Kandula’s underscores this ongoing issue.

Just as Justice Dugro believed Griffin’s suffering was less significant because of his race, the modern legal system, which remains reliant on the calculations of forensic economists, continues to undervalue some lives based on demographic factors. In Jaahnavi’s case, the term “limited value” doesn’t just represent a dollar figure but implies an entire world of biases, preconceived notions, and deeply rooted prejudices. It speaks to how society, and by extension its legal system, views the worth of an individual, particularly when that individual belongs to a marginalized group. While we may have reached a point of progress where it is no longer permissible for our judges to specifically reference victims’ race when sizing up their suffering, racial bias still pervades the attitudes and practices of street-level bureaucrats like Auderer. Recognizing both overt and subtle forms of discrimination is crucial for achieving genuine equity and justice in the legal system. As societal norms evolve, so too must our legal frameworks, ensuring they don’t just change in form but also in substance, truly upholding the values of equality and justice for all.


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