As past president of the State Bar of Georgia and a seasoned trial lawyer, I’m impressed by the recent string of jury verdicts in Georgia, two of which exceed $70 million. Several of these were won by lawyers who, like me, have attended Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College programs and closed door, members-only seminars of the AAJ Trucking Litigation Group.
Some of these verdicts will be compromised or cut in post-judgment motions and appeals, and some will be simply uncollectable. Prudent lawyers know that there is no appeal from a settlement, and big verdicts usually result from someone guessing wrong about what a jury will do. While I am too experienced to be giddy about any of this, it is true that a rising tide lifts all boats, as a history of good verdicts in a jurisdiction becomes a factor at some level in insurance companies’ valuation of cases. Of course, it no sense to try a case if an insurer promptly tenders policy limits near the value of the case, or if a verdict would be just a piece of paper suitable for framing and not collectible.
Here are just a few recent Georgia jury verdicts in personal injury and wrongful death cases:
- $73 million verdict, Fulton County, Jan. 15, 2015. Gas explosion in apartment during move-in caused burns to 50% of new tenant’s body. Gas line was allegedly left uncapped when gas was turned on. The defense alleged that the plaintiff accidentally opened the gas line himself in trying to light the water heater, but the jury apportioned zero fault to the plaintiff. The verdict included $17.9 million compensatory damages for injuries, lost earnings and expenses, $47.9 million in punitive damages and $7 million in attorney fees. I expect the punitive damages award may be reduced from $47.9 million to $250,000 under Georgia law.
- $72.6 million verdict, DeKalb County, Jan. 12, 2015. Child was mauled by a pit bull. The defendant defaulted and the jury awarded $36.6 million in compensatory and $36 million punitive damages. The punitive award could be reduced from $36 million to $250,000. In light of the default, I have my doubts about collectability of any significant portion of the verdict.
- $6.25 million verdict, Floyd County, Dec. 12, 2014. Motorcycle rider lost leg when ambulance that was not on an emergency run pulled out from a stop sign and hit him. Floyd County is traditionally considered a very conservative venue.
- $3.6 million verdict, Gwinnett County, Jan. 16, 2015. This verdict once again disproved Gwinnett County’s old reputation for low verdicts. Neck, back and shoulder injuries to two Hispanic, non-English speaking workers with immigration and language barrier issues. A Georgia Power pickup truck, driven by an attractive, articulate engineer who was pregnant at trial, struck them in the rear. Ga Power fought liability saying plaintiffs slammed on brakes with no turn signal on, implying that they staged the wreck. The defense claimed that there were no actual injuries and all medical care was unnecessary and designed to get money in a lawsuit. Overcoming bias against non-English speaking undocumented Hispanic immigrants. The offer before trial was very low.
- $945,358.99 verdict, Gwinnett County, Dec. 17, 2014. Hispanic mom was rear ended by tractor trailer in rainy rush hour in construction zone. Trial was just to collect $25,000 underinsured motorist coverage after settlement with trucking company for $985,000. UM carrier offered only $5,000. Since verdict was for less than settlement with trucker’s insurer, nothing is collected from UM carrier.
- $4.3 million verdict, reduced to $2.58 million for comparative negligence, Clayton County, Nov. 2014. Brain injury to railroad worker was struck by shrapnel fired from a makeshift “potato cannon” rigged by a supervisor. The jury found the plaintiff 39% at fault because he had helped build the potato cannon and was filming the nonsense when the device misfired.
- $3.7 million dollar verdict, Fulton County, Jan. 14, 2015. 18 year old woman was sexually molested by an anesthetist in an oral surgery practice, who made video recordings of molestations of 19 women on a hidden camera. There will be an appeal.
- $3.6 million verdict, Clayton County, Dec. 19, 2014. Negligent security claim against hotel by guest who was shot in the stomach while checking in at 2 AM. The verdict was reduced to $1.17 million after the jury apportioned the responsibility for the damages at 58 percent for the shooter, who wasn’t a defendant in the suit; 32 percent on the defendant hotel owner and 10 percent on the plaintiff himself.
- $700,000 verdict, Fulton County, Dec. 2014. Woman who had lived in Chicago slipped and fractured an ankle on a patch of black ice outside an office park.
- $140,000 verdict, Bibb County State Court, Dec. 18, 2014. State Farm only offered $3,500 on “minor impact soft tissue” case, but jury awarded $140,000 to plaintiff with significant preexisting conditions.