Another “Nuclear Verdict” What Can We Learn From This St. Louis Verdict?

Jury delivers $745 million verdict to family of Ballwin woman killed in Whip-It! abuse crash

Headline from St. Louis Post Dispatch 9/11/2023.  

A Nuclear Verdict is typically defined as any jury verdict in a case involving a single incident of $10,000,000 or more. This verdict in September 2023 from a St. Louis County jury clearly meets that definition. The jury awarded this amount to the family of a 25 year old woman killed when a driver of an SUV lost control and struck the victim as she was leaving work. The driver had been inhaling Nitrous Oxide also known as laughing gas which is readily accessible and known to be abused to get high. The verdict was against the supplier (70%), the retail distributor ( 20%) and the driver (10%).

Nuclear Verdict Impact Beyond the Parties

We know that Nuclear Verdicts impact the parties directly involved in the case but they also have a ripple effect through society. For example, Nuclear Verdicts can shine a light on dangerous products. These large verdicts also influence claimants, potential jurors and defendants or their insurers in future cases. The size and frequency of large verdicts impact insurance company loss ratios which will result in increased premiums or reduced insurance options for consumers. The broad impact of nuclear verdicts make it essential we understand what drives them. 

Liability Facts Create Anger

This verdict is further confirmation that when facts surrounding an incident demonstrate more than simple negligence but rather a disregard for the safety of others, a failure to act in response to a danger, placing a priority on profit despite a known risk or delay in taking action that could have prevented the incident, jurors will send a strong message inflamed by anger.  Moreover, although in allocating fault jurors should not consider the ability to pay, jurors are aware of the practical consequences of the verdict. In this case, the jury clearly diminished the role of  the actor closest to the incident, the driver who abused the product, to shift primary responsibility to a party more removed from the incident that legally offered the product for sale but the jury likely assumed it had a deeper pocket from which it could pay the verdict.

Verdict may be reduced but headlines will remain

The jury awarded $20,000,000 in compensatory damages and $725,000,000 in punitive damages. There are legal mechanisms post verdict that may result in a reduced verdict either by the trial judge or following an appeal. It is not likely any reduction will get the same level of press attention provided to the jury award. The award is news and successful plaintiff’s attorneys are eager to be sure the news gets wide publicity. News outlets are less interested in reporting that a significant verdict was reduced by the court for important but more technical legal reasons. The huge award is what claimants and future jurors may remember and it will be used in negotiating other claims as a warning about what can happen if a jury is asked to value a case.

What does the Nuclear Verdict  Mean For Future Claims

No two claims are alike. Nevertheless, plaintiffs’ attorneys will point to the headline and argue that society values the life of a 25 year old young person as $20,000,000. Further they may say that considering a life expectancy of approximately 57 years for a 25 year old female, this verdict indicates that society values the loss of a life at over $350,000 per year. Further, plaintiff’s attorneys will assert in catastrophic injury cases with permanent disability that reduced quality and enjoyment of life should be valued close to the same as loss of life. Defendants and insurers must be prepared to refute these assertions. Therefore, it is critical that defendants and insurers accurately identify and evaluate the factors that create true risk.

ClaimLens, a DocLens product, can identify and evaluate key risk signals and recommend next best actions when those signals are present in a claim.





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