Two “reasonably adequate” jury verdicts this week

As a trial lawyer in Atlanta focusing primarily on trucking cases, I rejoice with my friends when they do well and commiserate with them when they fall short.

My father-in-law’s most affectionate comment about his children and grandchildren is that we are "reasonably adequate" — stated with a twinkle in his eye. Those who know him realize that this understated compliment is actually the highest praise.

Some of my friends have won "reasonably adequate" jury verdicts this week.

Business fraud case in Dothan, Alabama – $13.8 million jury verdict.

In federal court in Dothan, Alabama, Bill Stone of Baxley, GA, and Harry Hall of Dothan, won a $13.8 million verdict against Nissan North America.  They were representing the Bankruptcy Trustee for Collins Signs, Inc. The Court is expected to make an award of attorneys fees and litigation expenses on top of the verdict. Collins Signs started out as a small, portable sign business and grew to become an international company.  It was one of Dothan’s largest private employers.  Collins Signs was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 2003, after Nissan falsely claimed Collins Signs had failed to perform a contract for the design, manufacture and installation of new, standardized Nissan brand signs at 1,100 Nissan dealerships all across the United States.  Nissan declared the sign contract in default.

The sign contract arose out of Nissan’s global re-imaging plan to makeover the Nissan brand image at all its dealerships, starting with those in the United States.  Discord arose within the Nissan organization when its Purchasing Department decided to award the sign contract by competitive internet reverse bidding over the objection of the Nissan Brand and Market Research Department.  Although the Nissan Purchasing Department was in charge of awarding the sign contract, the Nissan Brand Department was in charge of performing Nissan’s obligations under the contract.  Nissan Brand manager Peter Bossis did not want the sign contract awarded by competitive bidding, but wanted it to go to Nissan’s exclusive sign supplier, Plasti-Line, Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, where one of Bossis’ former subordinates, Ken Williams, had taken a position after he retired from Nissan.  

The scheme to defraud Collins Signs was orchestrated by the Nissan Brand Department.  After Collins Signs won the competitive bid and was awarded the sign contract, Bossis immediately began taking steps to obstruct Collins Signs’ ability to perform it.  Bossis and other Nissan Brand managers deliberately disregarded contract provisions that benefited Collins Signs and refused to allow Collins Signs to have contact with Nissan Dealers to explain the re-imaging program or to make sales presentations and take dealer orders, as the contract required.  They refused to follow Collins Signs’ recommendations concerning sign applications to be in compliance with local laws and ordinances, causing delays and increased dealer costs.  They created unreasonable dealer expectations by providing inaccurate information to dealers, which caused dealers to make unfounded complaints about Collins Signs’ installations of signs at those dealerships.  They imposed obligations on Collins Signs that exceeded the contract terms Nissan Purchasing had negotiated.  They required Collins Signs to build in excess of $4 million in finished goods inventory before dealer sign orders were submitted to trigger the company’s manufacturing obligation.  They did all of this in deliberate disregard of Collins Signs’ manufacturing and inventory plan that was approved by Nissan Purchasing as part of the contract.  They refused to pay Collins Signs’ invoices for sign installations completed as required by the contract.  They created a cash-flow problem for Collins Signs, making it difficult for the company to pay its suppliers, installers and other creditors.  They then used this problem they created deceitfully, to persuade Collins Signs to request a development cost deposit from Nissan.  Once Collins Signs did that, Nissan used the deposit request its Brand Department solicited to declare Collins Signs in default under the sign contract.  Bossis intended all along to prevent Collins Signs’ from performing the sign contract, to persuade Nissan Purchasing to terminate the contract with Collins Signs, and to re-direct the contract to his preferred sign supplier, Plasti-Line.  Ultimately, Nissan Purchasing did exactly that, even though Plasti-Line was not the next-lowest bidder.  After Plasti-Line replaced Collins Signs, Nissan converted and misappropriated tools, dies, molds, and design and manufacturing drawings belonging to Collins Signs, and valued at approximately $300,000.

As a result of Nissan’s fraud, Collins Signs suffered financial losses, was forced out of business, and placed in involuntary bankruptcy.  Substantially all its remaining assets were sold by the bankruptcy court to pay creditors. 

Stone summed up the case as follows:  “An American dream became an un-American nightmare for Collins Signs and the entire Dothan community.

Thee Trustee’s lawsuit asked the court to rescind the sign contract due to Nissan’s promissory fraud, and assess damages against Nissan.  After a 3-week trial, the federal jury found against Nissan on all the Trustee’s claims, and awarded $3.8 million in compensatory damages and $10 million as punitive damages.

Trucking wrongful death case in Atlanta – $54.4 million jury verdict.
Friday evening, a Fulton County State Court jury returned a $54.4 million verdict in a trucking case for the wrongful death of a 50 year old woman against PFG-Milton Food Service.

The decedent was a Certified Nursing Assistant,  an immigrant from Jamaica who had been a US citizen for only 10 years. The plaintiff was her husband who was not a US citizen and was not present at trial. She was also survived by four adult kids, who will share in the recovery under Georgia law. As I understand it, the truck driver had a poor driving records and hours of service violations. 

The breakdown was $10,420,000 compensatory and $44,000,000 in punitive damages against PFG.  AIG had $150,000,000 in insurance.  During jury deliberations the plaintiff  turned down a $4,000,000 offer. Anything that holds up on post-trial motions and appeal is fully insured, as the defendant had $150 million insurance coverage with AIG.
The plaintiff’s attorneys were Pete Law and Mike Moran.

I have not yet heard how the plaintiffs may get around the $250,000 cap on punitive damages under Georgia law.  In a wrongful death suit in Georgia, because the statute itself is punitive, punitive damages are not permitted in addition to the statutory damages. However, punitive damages may be awarded in the executor or administrator’s suit for medical expense, funeral expense and conscious pain and suffering before death. However, under OCGA Section 51-12-5.1, punitive damages are capped at $250,000, unless the defendant acted with specific intent to cause harm, or was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

It is interesting that in the wake of the tort reform campaign and legislation, significant jury verdicts seem to have gotten larger and more frequent, even though it has become harder to get a plaintiff’s verdict in small personal injury cases.  I have not yet seen an in depth analysis of the reasons for the increase in large verdicts.

While I congratulate my friends, I am concerned that headline verdicts could add fuel to another round of tort reform proposals.

  • Christy Jolle

    I am interested in your comments about the Fulton County trial since I was the jury foreperson for that trial. I am somewhat surprised about the cap on punitive damages since that was not indicated to us by the judge in any way.
    I can tell you that the range of damages for both the compensatory and the punitive damages that was discussed ranged from zero to, well, the sky, and although the deleterious effect on all Americans of extraordinarily high jury awards WAS pointed out to the jury, there were some in the jury who could only see the tears of the family rather than the larger picture. The final decision on the compensatory damages was really a compromise that I had to wrangle the jury to come to consensus on. Since I teach Political Science, I had to explain a little of the system to my fellow jurors, some of whom had very little knowledge about it.
    When we returned to the courtroom and were then informed of the prior driving performance of this trucker and the apparent lack of concern by PFG the jury was infuriated. The next round of deliberations included discussions of the high profits of this multi-billion dollar company and that a small punitive award would not even make them blink. If, as you say, they have a $150,000,000 insurance policy then, I guess, maybe the $44,000,000 punitive award will probably not even dent their conciousness level. Oh, well, we all learned something that week and I went back to teach the mock trials in my high school Political Science class with new insight into the peccadillos of the justice system.

  • Most people believe that the only way that we can know with any certainty whether and to what extent another person is experiencing pain and/or anguish is through the sufferer’s communication. People achieve this communication at several levels: non-verbal vocal (sobbing, moaning, groaning, screaming, sighing, grunting etc.); and body language. These are overt manifestations of a person exercising the ability to communicate. But, what of the brain-injured person who does not overtly convey his/her feelings? Can we assume that such individuals feel nothing, have no thoughts and are unaware of their surroundings? Certainly not; we only know that they have lost the ability to express themselves. Yet, the plaintiff’s attorney must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the client is aware of his/her predicament and is suffering pain, sever discomfort and/or mental anguis.

  • Wilma Davison

    What about when a truck driver is the one that is injured when a car runs in to the front wheel of his rig (on the drivers side)? Are there any statistics relating to injujred truck drivers? Thanks.