Gannett ran the same article on Mississippi jury verdicts in two newspapers on Sunday. The headline of the article in the Hattiesburg American was “Jury Awards Running Rampant.” Meanwhile, the headline for the same article in the Clarion-Ledger was “Jackpot awards still occur.”
The actual article opens with a softer tone:
Large verdicts still are being won here and there in Mississippi nearly 10 years after the state passed legislation capping damages jurors can award in civil cases.
I guess that is sort of true. Highly misleading. But sort of true. The key words being “here and there” with an asterisk to denote that jury verdicts don’t reflect actual recoveries, if any.
The article cites a grand total of two cases. First, the Cole v. Ford Motor Co. verdict that I discussed a lot on this blog. The case involved the death of professional baseball player Brian Cole. The general manager for the New York Mets testified at trial that Cole was going to play in the majors. There was a $131 million verdict in the third trial and the case settled. A comment to one of my posts cites a rumor that the case settled for $12 million. Far south of $131 million and a reasonable figure for a pro baseball player.
Second, the $322 million Smith County asbestos drilling mud verdict that I discussed here and here. The article quotes Raleigh lawyer Gene Tullos, who represented the plaintiffs at trial. I have heard that the plaintiffs asked for far less in damages than was actually awarded. The verdict is being chalked up to the Gene Tullos Smith County phenomenon.
The article goes on to state that the defendant does not expect the verdict to stand on appeal:
Union Carbide has confidence in the Mississippi appellate courts and believes – without hesitation – That this verdict will be completely set aside by post-trial motions or through the appellate process," company spokesman Scot Wheeler said.
"While the case lacks any merit, by just applying the applicable damage limitations, the total award against Union Carbide should be reduced to substantially less than $1 million."
Union Carbide’s confidence is well placed. The chances of that verdict getting affirmed on appeal are less than zero.
As I have discussed previously, plaintiffs are getting crushed in trials in Mississippi. Jury awards are not “running rampant” and any verdicts that are out of line get reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The fact of the matter is that anyone who gets a verdict out of a Mississippi jury and then gets that verdict paid or affirmed on appeal has earned it and deserves it.
The thing that bothers me about this newspaper article is that it sends a message that is wrong. Perhaps intentionally. Perhaps not. Lawyers and judges know that juries are not running rampant, but the general public doesn’t.
The article misses the real story. Why is there a $322 million verdict coming out of Smith County, which looks ultra-conservative on paper? Why are there so many large verdicts coming out of Judge Billy Joe Landrum’s courtroom? Those are interesting questions that would make for a good story. But the Gannett article misses those questions on its way to a shallow article with misleading hysteric headlines.