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Was it the boom or was it good lawyering?

The National Law Journal
By Margaret Cronin Fisk
Special to The National Law Journal

February 28, 2000

Are large jury verdicts an aberration? If so, 1999 was a year of aberrations. Whether because of the economy, the skills of lawyers or the sheer weight of the cases, verdicts overall were up in 1999, with juries awarding record amounts in many categories and jurisdictions.

General Motors Corp., for example, was hit with the largest products liability verdict of all time-$4.93 billion, to a family that sustained severe burns when their car was rear-ended. And a British company won the largest-ever trademark infringement award, against Pfizer Corp.

Raising the bar
Each year, there are record verdicts somewhere, but in 1999, there was an overall raising of the bar. The top 10 verdicts from 1998, for instance, added up to $4.16 billion. The top 10 verdicts from 1999 add up to $9.56 billion.

There were massive verdicts in jurisdictions where jurors previously had never been known for their generosity. A jury in Idaho handed down the largest medical malpractice verdict ever awarded in that state-$29.72 million to a child who allegedly sustained brain damage in utero as a result of a botched amniocentesis. And a jury in Connecticut broke the state’s medical malpractice award record with a $30 million verdict.

Antitrust was about the only area in which verdicts did not rise. Lawsuits involving personal injury or death went through the roof. The top five products liability verdicts in 1998, for instance, included awards of $153.19 million, $144.88 million, $80 million, $60 million and $21.3 million. The 1999 figures are $4.9 billion, $1 billion, $295 million, $150 million and $114 million.

It was particularly rough year for police departments. Several were hit with massive judgments in cases involving issues such as excessive force, failure to protect informants or prisoners, and malicious prosecution. Chief among these were a $98 million verdict against the District of Columbia police department, $41 million against the New York police department and $28 million against the Chicago police department.

The nursing home industry also continues to be hit hard by juries. The largest 1999 verdict in this area was $65 million, considerably smaller than the largest of 1998, $250 million. But there were more large verdicts in these cases overall, and plaintiffs used increasingly creative causes of action to skirt damage caps or limits on recovery for aged plaintiffs.

On appeal, more verdicts were sustained at a fairly high level. Courts continue to slice away at large verdicts, but there was a significant trend of punitive damages surviving court review. They were usually cut, but not nearly as much as expected, or as could have been predicted form actions in previous years.

After post-trial motions, for instance, the General Motors verdict was still greater than $1 billion. The trial court retained some $300 million in punitives in a $581 million verdict against Whirlpool Financial Corp., in a lawsuit charging deceptive sales practices. The trial court considering a $120 million insurance bad-faith verdict against Aetna didn’t touch the $116 million in punitives.

Settlements are becoming more common and speedier. Only one of the top 10 verdicts of 1998 was settled by the end of the year. Four of 1999’s top 10 have already been resolved-some extraordinarily fast. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and an affiliate were hit with a $624.37 million penalty on May 14; the settlement was reached on May 16. A lesser case settled the very day a jury delivered its $150 million verdict.

The National Law Journal has researched more than 200 jury verdicts and settlements to produce a Top 40 list of the largest and most significant verdicts of 1999, in 12 separate categories. The section does not include arbitration awards or verdicts by judges. All decisions were valid and collectible as of Feb. 10.

In addition, this section includes:

  • Eleven awards that were significantly reduced after verdict, including awards from prior years. Reduced verdicts that remain leaders in their categories stay in the top 40.
  • Ten large verdicts that were overturned, including some from prior years.
  • Eleven large 1999 verdicts in cases that were later settled.
  • Ten prominent cases settled before trial, including mass class settlements.

Verdicts that deserve mention are on the Web, at www.nlj.com. Longer versions of many parts of this section can also be found on the web.

  1. $4.93 Billion
    Anderson v. General Motors Corp.
    Products liability
  2. $1.024 Billion
    Cowart v. Johnson Kart Manufacturing Inc.
    Products liability
  3. $907 Million
    Moddux v. Einhorn
    Wrongful death
  4. $624.37 Million
    Valores Corp. S.A. de C.V. v. McLane Co.
    Breach of contract
  5. $580.98 Million
    Carlisle v. Whirpool Financial National Bank
    Consumer fraud
  6. $456 Million
    Avery v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.
  7. $296 Million
    Smalley v. Koch Industries Inc.
    Wrongful death
  8. $295.3 Million
    Romo v. Ford Motor Co.
    Products liability
  9. $160.4 Million
    Alcorn v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.
    Personal injury
  10. $158 Million
    Bujol v. National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh
    Personal injury

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