Man oh man, people got all in a huff when McDonald's jumpin java scalded Stella Liebeck and the jury awarded her almost $3 million dollars. But, Liebeck isn't the only one that seems to be benefiting from generous jury verdicts.
Get a gander at some of the whopping verdicts juries have been awarding in the past few years:
The largest jury verdict actually may have put Imelda Marcos' shoe collection in jeopardy. In 1996, a jury awarded treasure hunter Roger Roxas $22 billion for a golden Buddha statute and bars of gold bullion he claims the deceased dictator stole from him. A judge pumped up the award to $40.5 billion by adding interest into the mix. Quite a bit of booty....
This treasure hunter's story is actually sort of a fairytale or rather a nightmare, depending on your perspective. Roxas tunneled for months searching for treasure a buddy told him was buried eons before. But, he finally found it in the form of a golden Buddha statute that was chock full of diamonds and bars of gold bullion.
As the story goes, Marcos got wind of the discovery, and like any reputable dictator, had Roxas arrested, jailed and tortured and then pocketed -- so to speak -- the purloined prize.
A jury believed Roxas' story, even though the plaintiff couldn't tell it himself -- he mysteriously died the day before the trial opened. The Hawaii Supreme Court however said the jurors must have punched the wrong keys on their calculators and set aside the verdict, ordering a new trial for the purpose of recalculating the booty balance sheet. That was back in 1996 and the estate of Roger Roxas has yet to see a dime of the decision.
Even though the Hawaiian high court felt the jury in the Roxas case didn't use the cold hard facts to come to a proper conclusion, they at least had something tangible to measure.
Many verdicts are based on ethereal evidence for pain and suffering, though punishment for corporate wrong doers seems to be the primary push. One need only examine the various juries who have whacked big tobacco for billions to realize that corporations are the main target for juries with an ax to grid.
In 2002, a Los Angeles jury handed Betty Bullock, a 50 year smoker, $28 billion. The award was so large many thought the jury made a spelling error. The judge apparently agreed because he reduced the award to $28 million a couple months later.
According to legal experts, the jury in the Bullock case didn't just pull the verdict amount out of a magic hat. Instead, the jurors relied on something defense counsel presented during trial. The story goes something like this: Philip Morris tried to tell the jury they needn't punish the company in this case, since so many other lawsuits have been filed. Unfortunately, the attorney should have stopped right there. But, he continued. In doing so, he also revealed to the jury that only one out of 28,000 California smokers who died filed lawsuits. Well, ladies and gentleman, if you multiply that figure by a million, you end up with voila! - $28 million!
Now some might think smokers reap what they smoke, but apparently the evidence that the tobacco companies knew they were dispensing cancer sticks beats out in the blame department.
So, one has to wonder why pharmacist Robert Courtney - who diluted cancer drugs - was only hit with a $2.2 billion judgment in the same year. Not only does was he put in the slammer for the next 30 years, but a Missouri jury also socked him with a billion-plus dollar award for punitive damages plus $225 million for compensatory damages.
Georgia Hayes was already in remission from her ovarian cancer when Courtney siphoned off a third of the strength of her chemotherapy drugs. Unlike smokers who have known -- or should have known - smoking is bad for you, Hayes and thousands of other cancer patients didn't ask to be duped by the bad druggist.
Another case of deception, however, has legal eagles scratching their heads in wonder. In this case, an Alabama jury took less than an hour to decide that a woman deserved $1.6 billion in punitive damages from James Richard Perry, an insurance agent for Southwestern Life Insurance Co. who decided to pocket her $3,000 premium and let her insurance policy lapse.
The parties later settled the case for an undisclosed amount to avoid an appeal. The attorneys connected with the case that the Alabama cap (three times the compensatory amount) on punitive damages would have limited her damages to $20 million dollars anyways.
Given some of the outrageous jury verdicts that have grabbed headlines over the years, many states and the federal government are jumping on the tort reform bandwagon in the hopes of deterring jackpot justice.
The main push came when doctors started complaining they couldn't even get malpractice insurance forcing good doctors out of practice. Ironically, the med mal claims sort of pale in comparison to some of these other whopping awards.
The largest medical malpractice award was awarded in recent years to the estate of a teenager with cerebral palsy in the amount of $268 million. The teen had died after the hospital administered 40 times the required amount of post-operative medicine. However, the majority of the other med mal cases haven't even hit the nine digit mark.
But, some cases do reach the billion dollar range. In fact, two staggering awards topped the list in 1999. In one case, the plaintiffs won $4.9 billion against General Motors. The issue: GM did not put the fuel tank in a safe enough spot on the 1979 Chevy Malibu.
Ironically, the jury never got to hear that the drunk driver's blood alcohol level was two-and-a-half times the legal limit when he crashed into the Chevy Malibu or that he was driving 70 m.p.h. They also never heard that most of the cars built in the 1970s had rear fuel tanks.
When the drunk driver rear-ended the auto, the vehicle burst into flames. Both the driver and passengers survived but suffered severe burns.
In the second billion-dollar bonanza, a vehicle exploded. Only this time, a young mother eventually died from the burns she received after a go-cart she was driving tipped, sending the gas cap flying and causing the cart to burst into flames. The plaintiff's attorney produced evidence that the Milwaukee go-cart manufacturer -- who took it on the chin for $1.24 billion -- knew about the faulty the gas caps and refused to fix the problem.
All in all, examining the size of some of these jury verdicts it's easy to understand why people holler when they read some of the headlines, but what doesn't usually make the front pages is the fact that verdicts of this expanse are almost always reduced by the judge hearing the case or later in appeals court.
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