Jury awards reach record high

Jan. 11, 2000
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BOSTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Juries across the United States awarded a record high of nearly $9 billion last year, according to Lawyers Weekly USA.

The national newspaper for lawyers said awards from the Top Ten Verdicts for 1999 increased dramatically for the second year in a row, tripling the dollar value for 1998.

Jurors today "recognize that the only way to get a big corporation's attention is with a large monetary award against them," said Brian Panish, the Santa Monica, Calif., lawyer who won the biggest award of the year for his clients against General Motors.

Topping the list was a $4.9 billion verdict won by Panish and Christine Spagnoli for six people severely burned in 1993 when their 1979 Chevy Mailbu was rear-ended by a drunken driver and burst into flames.

Banish and Spagnoli set out to prove that GM put profits over safety by leaving the fuel tank in a vulnerable spot directly in front of the rear bumper.

The jury agreed the fuel system caused the injuries and awarded the six victims $4.9 billion, including $4.8 billion in punitive damages. GM is appealing the decision.

Lawyers Weekly said this year's Top Ten included two verdicts that awarded more than $1 billion each, and the rest topped $100 million each. Five were personal injury suits, two were employment disputes and the other three were a murder, a credit scam and a wrongful taking of property case.

The second-highest award, $1.24 billion, involved a 1992 accident in which a 32-year-old woman was fatally burned when the go-cart she was driving at the Tiki Island Amusement Park in Pensacola, Fla., rolled over and burst into flames. The victim, Jennifer Cowart, spent the next year in a hospital before she died of an infection caused by the burns. The award included $1 billion in punitive damages against the Milwaukee-based Johnson Kart Manufacturing Inc.

Attorney Martin Levin said punitive damages "expressed the jury sentiment and my personal sentiment that the go-cart industry is a very dangerous industry," uncontrolled by federal or industry regulations.

While large punitive damage awards are usually associated with cases that result in harrowing physical or emotional injury to the plaintiff, three of last year's largest verdicts were for purely financial injury.

One case involved a satellite-dish credit scam in which the three plaintiffs never lost a dime, but were awarded $580 million in punitive damages.

Richard Samp of the Washington Legal Foundation told the newspaper: "Not too many years ago, the idea that someone could be awarded more than a million dollars for (even) the loss of a life was unheard of. Today, those kinds of restrictions have long since been erased."

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