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.