Should you expect a huge verdict in a personal injury case?

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Last week a jury awarded plaintiff DeWayne "Lee" Johnson more than $289 million in a suit against agrochemical company Monsanto. Johnson claimed Monsanto's weed killer substantially contributed to his diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Plaintiff Chetan Vaidya agreed to a $7 million settlement-a fraction of Johnson's jury award, but substantial nonetheless-as compensation for injuries he sustained in a slip-and-fall in an icy Bank of America parking lot.

Huge verdicts like these make the news, but are they common? Not hardly. Do they stick? Not always.

At the outset, remember that jury verdicts are just that. Twelve of your friends and neighbors listened to testimony, saw exhibits and paid attention throughout a trial. That jury decided what the injured person should get in each particular case.

Defendants can appeal a damage award, arguing the award is excessive. If they prevail, the appellate court can order a reduced award or send it back to the trial court to further examine the damages award.

Not every slip-and-fall case results in a multimillion dollar verdict in the plaintiff's favor. In Vaidya's case, his fall rendered him quadriplegic and with vocal chord paralysis. Further, the icy parking lot had not been salted.

Every case has two aspects: liability and damages. Liability generally means responsibility. The stronger the plaintiff's case, the greater the liability. In some cases, the plaintiff may have suffered serious injuries but little evidence that the defendant's actions caused those injuries. In other cases, the plaintiff can clearly show defendant's fault in the matter.

Damages refers to the extent of the plaintiff's suffering. Damages may include medical expenses, time missed from work, other financial losses, and physical and emotional pain and suffering.

If a defendant acted with obvious disregard for the health and safety of others, a jury may award punitive damages. Punitive damages "punish" a defendant for its recklessness or egregious behavior.

Take Monsanto. Plaintiff's lawyer, R. Brent Wisner, told The Recorderthat they had evidence Monsanto knew for decades that its product, Roundup, and a chemical it contains, glyphosate, could cause cancer. Yet it continued to produce the product without changes or consumer safety warnings.

Because of Monsanto's uncaring attitude toward consumer safety, a jury decided to hit the company in the pocketbook in hopes of discouraging future despicable behavior. As an aside, shares in Monsanto's parent company, Bayer AG, took a big hit, Wall Street Journal reports.

No two cases are alike

Every personal injury case involves different questions of damages and liability. Every case involves different sets of facts. A small percentage of personal injury cases go to trial. When they do, the jury makes a decision based on the facts of that specific case. The jury could award up to a defendant's insurance policy limits, or less, or more.

If you trip and fall on a sidewalk and break your elbow, you most likely won't receive $7 million.

On the other hand, let's assume a construction company is doing some work in a parking lot. As part of the construction, it has to dig a 3x3x6-foot hole in the parking lot so an electrical company can install some hardware.

The construction company digs the hole and advises the electrical company that it is ready for them to start work. It's late in the day, and neither the electrical company nor the construction company places a metal plate over the hole, nor do they mark it with cones or tape.

Because of the construction, there isn't much lighting. That night, a 30-year-old neurosurgeon, married with four kids, walks through the parking lot on a shortcut he has taken many times before. In the dark, the doctor falls in the hole and is rendered a quadriplegic. He can no longer practice surgery. He may not ever work again.

That trip and fall is likely worth much more than $7 million.

Remember, each verdict is distinct. And each verdict is delivered by 12 regular people-your friends, neighbors, coworkers-who listened to all the evidence and testimony and agreed on a result.

Have you been injured in a fall, a collision or a construction accident? Contact us today for a free consultation.

Photo by Ken Lund, Flickr

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David G. Smith, Attorney At Law
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Oakland, CA 94612

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