NUCLEAR VERDICTS ON THE RISE
Nuclear verdicts are multi-million-dollar awards, usually to compensate for a person’s subjective and immeasurable pain and suffering that cannot be justified as compensating a person for an injury. These awards typically result from a plaintiffs’ lawyer’s urging the jury to return a specific, extraordinary amount and misleading them to think that level is the norm. It can also result from plaintiffs’ lawyers’ inflaming the jury to improperly punish a defendant for conduct that would not qualify for punitive damages.
TRUCKING INDUSTRY A MAIN TARGET
The trucking industry has been one of the hardest hit by nuclear verdicts in Georgia. The American Transportation Research Institute indicates that while there were only four cases in 2006 where the awards exceeded $1 million, there were 70 in 2013. From 2017 to 2018, the average size of a trucking jury verdict grew an astounding 483 percent.
As discussed in last year’s report, a $280 million verdict was handed down in Columbus, Georgia, the largest verdict in the county’s history. The Muscogee County verdict was delivered after a mere 45 minutes of jury deliberation. The plaintiffs’ lawyers at Butler, Wooten & Peak LLP then advertised their success to solicit more business.
The case arose out of a tragic accident in which five people were killed after a tractor-trailer operated by a Schnitzer Southeast driver collided with their vehicle. The jury awarded an astounding $150 million for the value of the life of one passenger, $30 million for pain and suffering, plus $100 million in punitive damages and $65,000 in attorneys’ fees. The jury expressed frustration over the company not apologizing for the accident; however, the plaintiffs’ attorney moved to exclude the mention of any apologies during the trial. The plaintiffs’ attorney also accused the company of putting a fatigued driver on the road; however, the driver had been on vacation for four days and the morning of the accident was his first day back at work. Finally, local nightly news coverage contained “inflammatory inaccuracies” that may have impacted the jury.
Truckers point to the “reptile theory” in part for the large verdicts. This is a psychological trick that influences juries to believe they are personally threatened by the trucking company. It triggers the jury to believe it is in survival mode.
Because of the increasing nuclear verdicts, the insurance market is “brutally tough” for truckers. To make matters worse, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is considering raising the statutory minimum coverage limit from $750,000 to $2 million. Trucking insurance premiums rose 12 percent in 2018, and 42 percent from 2010 to 2018. Many truckers face 20 percent or even 30 percent increases in premiums. The median verdict rose from $23 million to $44 million over the second half of 2018 and all of 2019.
These verdicts have led to carrier bankruptcy and higher insurance premiums. Trucking insurance premiums, in part, have compelled Georgia based carrier CSS to shut down. After 38 years in business, when its insurance renewal for 2020 came around, the costs were just too high for them to continue operating. Many other midsize and large carriers also closed their doors in 2019 including Celadon, HVH Transportation, New England Motor Freight Inc., Falcon Transport, Stevens Tanker Division, GDS Express, and LME.
In February 2020, a plaintiff was awarded $21 million in Georgia federal court in a lawsuit against a tractor-trailer driver following an accident that killed a pedestrian. The driver suffered a sudden medical emergency while behind the wheel and was found unresponsive in the vehicle. The initial verdict was $15 million, but it was later increased to $21 million after the jury heard evidence that traces of opioids were found in his system. $6 million was added for litigation expenses.
OTHER NUCLEAR VERDICTS
These “nuclear verdicts” follow several extraordinary awards in 2019.
For example, a Muscogee County jury returned a $125 million verdict in a case in which the family of a 62-year-old steelworker who had significant health issues sued the owner and management of his apartment building for his death. The lawsuit blamed his death on the building’s failure to fix the broken air conditioning in his room.
Lawsuits stemming from criminal attacks in a CVS and Kroger parking lots ended in verdicts of $43 million in Fulton County and $69.6 million in DeKalb County, respectively, in 2019. The businesses, not the criminals, were held liable for these extraordinary sums on the basis that they should have had more security.
In December 2019, the survivors of a stuntman, who died while jumping off a balcony on the set of “The Walking Dead”, were awarded $8.6 million in a Gwinnett County court. In another case that month, a young man was awarded $15 million by a Greene County court after injuring his leg in a motocross accident. Despite the fact that the boy’s father signed an “assumption of risk” waiver, the court still awarded $14.2 million to the rider and nearly $800,000 to the parents for medical expenses.
The prior year, a Clayton County jury issued a $1 billion verdict against a security company after an employee committed a sexual assault at an apartment complex. The plaintiff alleged that the company should not have hired the employee because he did not have a license to be an armed security guard.
As the mega-million verdicts become more prevalent in Georgia, mindsets have shifted. According to those on the ground, the largest verdicts in the state used to be around $20 million, “Now the benchmarks are $125 million and $280 million.”