Charlotte Observer (NC)
(c) Copyright 2002, The Charlotte Observer. All Rights Reserved.
Friday, January 18, 2002
LOVE LOST IS LEGAL TENDER; RELATIVES OF TORT VICTIMS CLAIM DAMAGES, WIN BIG-
MONEY N.C. LAWSUITS; LAWYERS SAY LOVED ONES SUFFER ALSO, BUT BUSINESS LEADERS
FEAR COST OF SUCH LITIGATION, SEEK REFORMS;
ERIC FRAZIER, STAFF WRITER
THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
Love may be priceless, but that hasn’t stopped juries across North Carolina from slapping increasingly hefty price tags on it.
Relatives filing lawsuits on behalf of deceased, injured or otherwise wronged loved ones are winning verdicts as large as $8 million based on the simple notion that the companionship and affections of a spouse, child, parent or sibling can be worth a fortune.
Of the seven largest N.C. jury verdicts issued in 2001, four involved such love- and companionship-based claims, according to a new survey from N.C. Lawyers Weekly, a legal affairs newspaper in Raleigh.
Some business leaders think they know why such verdicts are on the rise. They suspect trial lawyers, hemmed in by state laws limiting punitive damages, have found a creative new way to rope in big-dollar verdicts.
They warn that the general public could suffer as companies and governments strapped with rising legal bills find themselves forced to hike prices for goods and services.
“Litigation drives up the costs to businesses and to individuals,” said Leslie Bevacqua, a vice president with N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, a pro-business lobbying group in Raleigh.
“In terms of the next steps for tort reform, this is an area we think the General Assembly should address.”
Trial lawyers say they expect the trend to continue. They don’t see why courts shouldn’t recognize the pain and suffering a person goes through when a loved one is catastrophically injured or killed because of wrongdoing.
“What’s it worth to be able to look forward to Christmas and holidays and not be alone?” asked Tom Comerford, a Winston-Salem lawyer. “What’s the value of being able to come home to someone instead of am empty house?
“I think a jury can look at a human life and a human relationship and look at it in terms of millions of dollars. I think that’s what’s going to be driving these wrongful death lawsuits.”
Some suggest litigants have been left with no other options, given legislation N.C. lawmakers passed in 1995 limiting punitive damages to $250,000 or three times the plaintiff’s out-of-pocket costs.
South Carolina has no limits on punitive damages, according to officials at the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association and the S.C. Bar. They say they haven’t seen a similar rise in loss-of-companionship claims.
In Mecklenburg courts alone last year, those kinds of claims prompted two juries to issue multi-million-dollar verdicts.
In February, a jury awarded $8.1 million to relatives of an IBM executive from Concord who committed suicide while under a psychiatrist’s care. It was the largest jury verdict awarded in the state last year, according to N.C. Lawyers Weekly.
Then in May, another Mecklenburg jury awarded $1.4 million to Davidson College head wrestling coach Thomas Oddo $1.4 million after he sued a Florida doctor for luring his wife away in an affair.
In the suicide case, attorneys Wade Byrd of Fayetteville and Sally Lawing of Greensboro convinced jurors that James Randall Barnes, 59, was a beloved family man, an “absolute, solid citizen anybody would have been glad to know.”
Byrd, one of North Carolina’s most prominent trial attorneys, showed jurors a print of Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece, “The Starry Night,” and told them it had sold for $11.8 million.
“If that was worth $11.8 million,” he said, “what is the life of this man worth?”
Fayetteville attorney Bill Aycock said he generally doesn’t even ask for punitive damages anymore.
Winston-Salem attorney Comerford said he hadn’t either when a federal jury in Greensboro awarded his client $1.4 million in connection with a 1994 plane crash.
While most loss-of-companionship awards go to grieving parents, children or spouses, the award in that case went to the brother of a police officer who died in the crash. The brothers had lived together.
“You can talk about it more clearly in the context of the loss of a child or a spouse,” Comerford said. “It was kind of interesting to see that (a jury) would embrace” a brother’s legal claim for damages.
Others say societal changes are also fueling the high-dollar verdicts arising from these claims.
Today’s empathetic, victim-sensitive culture give such claims added potency in the courtroom, said David Logan, a law professor at Wake Forest University.
“Trial lawyers are taking advantage of a cultural shift in which jurors are more like to empathize with the psychological impact of catastrophic events on a person because they are worried it could happen to them,” he said. “Once you get jurors to start saying, ‘I would give anything to keep that from happening to me,’ you’ve got a completely different dynamic in the jury room.”
Even so, he noted that million-dollar verdicts are still rare in civil courts. Most cases settle out of court, and jury awards in others are more likely to fall in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Adding to the appeal of the new awards is the fact that, since they aren’t governed by legal limits and specific rules, they are less likely to be overturned.
As more of them pile up, attorneys and defendants in future cases will likely use them as a sort of benchmark for their own financial requests.
“If past practice is any guide, it does seem that if these verdicts are not overturned, they will play a role in the next cases,” said Ertel Berry, legal editor for N.C. Lawyers Weekly.
“I suspect we will see more large awards like these in the future.”
Eric Frazier: [email protected]