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Top 10 Civil Justice Stories of 2015, Part One

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Attorney-inventor-author Richard N. (Rick) Shapiro frequently blogs at Virginia Beach Legal Examiner and he wrote the 2015 international award winning fiction thriller Taming The Telomeres. In addition to being a published, award-winning author, he a prolific American inventor/product designer.

Special thanks to Joseph Pickett and Edward Lamb for researching the stories which made the top-10 list.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

  1. $4.8 Million Awarded to Widows in Asbestos Cases Affirmed by Court of Appeals

Why It’s Big:

A corporation’s callous “double dipping” argument did not carry any weight with the Pennsylvania Court of Appeals. The court affirmed $4.8 million in damages verdicts to two women who filed suit over their husbands’ development of mesothelioma after long-term exposure to asbestos.

The corporate defendant appealed hurling spurious accusations that the widows were “double dipping” because the estates recovered from other parties via settlements, before the trial against these defendants. Maybe someone should have reminded the corporate defense team to have some basic decency. These women lost their husbands, and what was before the jury was whether these companies were negligent, and prior settlements against non-parties are almost always irrelevant and inadmissible. This was not a Mentos commercial where the widows doubled the pleasure and doubled the fun. They lost their loved ones and prior settlements with other asbestos suppliers had no bearing on the responsibility of the companies being sued on these cases. The Court of Appeals recognized that and affirmed the damage awards, ruling that the prior out of court settlements did not mean the widows were “double dipping.”

What Did We Learn?

Corporations sometimes lose sight of public perception and will work tirelessly to try and deny grieving widows the financial restitution they rightly deserve.  If the companies exposing these men to asbestos year after year had adopted simple safety steps, the men would not have developed mesothelioma asbestos induced cancers decades later.

Dig Deeper:


  1. Wal-Mart Settles with Comedian Tracy Morgan for Millions

Why It’s Big

The size of the rumored settlement is noteworthy. Details of the settlement have not been officially released, but it is rumored that the comedian received a $90 million settlement from Walmart.

The big rig smash up got major media attention around the world, as did the most likely result of the crash: truck driver fatigue. It was determined that the driver of the big rig most likely fell asleep behind the wheel after driving for more than 12 hours straight without rest.

What Did We Learn?

When you’re dealing with a high-profile injured party, settlement negotiations appears to be resolve much quicker. It is frustrating to know that if a Joe Nobody suffered the same injuries as Mr. Morgan, there is a good chance that Wal-Mart’s defense team would have dragged the case out for years in litigation. The spotlight that Mr. Morgan’s fame brought to the horrific collision, and the inexcusable negligence of the Wal-Mart employee, made this a case Wal-Mart wanted resolved sooner rather than later.  By the way, now Wal-Mart is suing various insurers who are defending their liability by saying that Wal-Mart caved in too easily.

Dig Deeper:


  1. West Virginia Enacts Tort “Deform” By Placing Caps on Punitive Damages

Why It’s Big:

Just when we through progress was being made in the fight against damage caps with the Florida ruling, West Virginia’s legislature had to show up and ruin the day. The state legislature voted to set arbitrary limits on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in a civil action.

As a result of the new law, the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded in West Virginia cannot exceed the greater of four times the amount of compensatory damages (damages tied to the injury received) or a maximum of $500,000. So, for example, if a jury awards an injured party $100,000 in compensatory damages, the maximum amount of punitive damages that can be awarded is $400,000. If a jury awards punitive damages in excess of $500,000, the court will reduce the award.

What Did We Learn?

The corporate lobbyists who want to destroy the civil justice system are still going strong, attacking “punishment” (punitive) damages and pushing through caps.  Does anyone believe a major corporation, earning millions per day, will be punished by $400,000?  No. It is amazing that damage caps are still considered a viable policy for lawmakers when there is virtually no empirical evidence showing that damage caps have any effect on insurance premiums or improve the justice system in any way.  Punitive damages are extremely rare, and juries only grant such damages when a company shows conscious disregard for human safety or egregious and grossly negligent conduct.  This cap will send this message: pollute or endanger the public as you desire: 400 K is the worst that can occur for civil punishment damages.

Dig Deeper:


  1. Florida Appeals Court Strikes Down Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

Why It’s Big:

There is finally some push-back to tort “deform” in the Sunshine State. An appeals court in Florida ruled that the state’s cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases is unconstitutional. The court, citing a Florida Supreme Court decision that invalidated a damage cap in wrongful death cases, found that the cap is in violation of the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. This is because it does not allow people with serious, life-changing injuries to be fully compensated, concluding that this violated the Florida constitution. Meanwhile, those who suffered less serious injuries were still able to recover full financial damages.

What Did We Learn?

An equal protection argument could serve as the basis for challenging these arbitrary and unfair medical malpractice damage caps, as many other states rushed to pass caps, after physicians claimed tort suits were driving doctors out of business.  In just a few years, the public has realized that tort laws are not driving doctors out of the practice of medicine, and other professionals do not have these types caps to protect them from professional negligence claims. The U.S. Supreme Court may well revisit this issue in the near future.

The appeals court relied heavily on the Florida Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Estate of McCall v. United States, 134 So. 3d 894, which was a wrongful death case. That decision found that the damages cap is in violation of the Florida Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Dig Deeper:


  1. Big Bank Underwriters Must Pay $9.3 Million in Fines for Fraud

Why It’s Big:

The underwriters for some of the biggest financial institutions in the world were slapped with hefty fines. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) determined that big banks sold bonds for municipalities that did not make sufficient financial disclosures to investors. The biggest players settled with the SEC and each paid a fine of $500,000.

The SEC stated that the big banks were negligent because the offering documents for deals they sold contained false data, or material omissions about the borrowers’ legal compliance.

Some of the banks involved in this high profile fraud case included:

  • Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch branch
  • Citigroup, Inc.
  • Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
  • JPMorgan Chase & Co.
  • Morgan Stanley

The $9.3 million of fines and penalties are the first against underwriters to arise from a ‘leniency offer’ that the SEC offered to banks and localities that self-reported that they had broken securities rules.

What Did We Learn?

The large fines against some of the biggest banks in the U.S. show that the SEC is serious about bringing some semblance of civil justice to the municipal securities market, even if it means hammering the biggest banks. Of course, some may argue that these fines are paltry compared to the damage inflicted on the U.S. economy by these dubious financial institutions, but the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. The SEC has been aggressive in increasing municipal market enforcement for the last five years. In 2010, government officials blasted the lax disclosure rules, as cities and states were rocked by the severe recession. This case suggests that SEC is going to continue to be aggressive in dropping the hammer on bad actors in the muni bond market.

Dig Deeper:

Coming Monday: The Top Five

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  1. Curtis Driggers says:
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    Thank you for the informative post.