Monday, July 03, 2000

Ky. juries stingy with awards

Report looks at trials

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — When it comes to awarding damages to plaintiffs, most Kentucky juries are a miserly bunch, a new report said.

        The Kentucky Trial Court Review's Year in Review 1999, prepared by a private company and sold to lawyers and insurance companies to help them value cases, summarized nearly every civil trial in Kentucky last year.

        It shows that in cases involving individuals as plaintiffs, the juries:


  • Awarded damages to plaintiffs in just 19 of 67 medical malpractice cases statewide.

            „Gave plaintiffs verdicts of $1 million or more in just 3 percent of the cases.

            „Found defendants at fault in 18 automobile negligence cases in which they nonetheless awarded the plaintiff no damages.

            The review summarized the results of 507 trials, focusing on 454 brought by individuals, most of them in state courts. John Tharp, an assistant editor of the 394-page review, which was published last month, said the report represents at least 90 percent of the civil cases tried last year in Ken tucky and 100 percent of those tried in larger jurisdictions.

            Jefferson Circuit Judge Barry Willett, a former president of the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys, said the review illustrates how carefully Kentucky juries approach their work.

            “Critics say that juries have nothing more than a lottery mentality,” Mr. Willett said. “This shows that couldn't be further from the truth.”

            Lawyers and judges say the results show Kentucky juries are conservative and critically minded. They also say the book shows there is no crisis in Kentucky with runaway monetary awards and the data help explain why the state has never been the successful target for tort reform by business groups.

            Plaintiffs won about 53 percent of the time in civil cases of all types and the average verdict was about $200,000. The figure drops to $113,000 when the two largest verdicts, of $20 million each, are excluded.

            The book, which sells for $180, is produced by a company called Kentucky

            Trial Court Review. The report includes the win-loss record of expert witnesses; pain and suffering awards by body part, and lists of the most prolific attorneys and law firms.

            It also lists case summaries that describe the assortment of ways in which Kentuckians injured one another — or were alleged to — and ended up at trial last year.

            According to the report, plaintiffs won damages for slipping and falling on watermelon juice ($47,675) and bleach ($15,997), off a porch ($452,274) and into a hidden hole ($300,204).

            Attorneys also say the findings indicate how savvy jurors have become.

            Bradley Hume, immediate past president of Kentucky Defense Counsel, a defense lawyer group, said jurors understand that excessive verdicts affect insurance rates and other consumer costs.

            But Joseph White, president of the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys, whose members represent mostly injured people, said he thinks prospective jurors are being influenced by politicians who talk about how damaging lawsuits can be to America's economy even though foreign-based companies doing business here are potentially subject to the same litigation.

            Mr. White also said he believes jurors are influenced by distorted media accounts of trials like the celebrated 1994 McDonald's coffee-burning case, in which a New Mexico woman suffered serious burns from spilled coffee that the restaurant's managers knew was brewed too hot to be safe.

            Pundits and politicians scorned the verdict, which included $2.7 million in punitive damages, but trial testimony showed the fast-food chain had settled more than 700 hot-drink claims in the previous 10 years.

            The book was first published last year and Mr. White said he's used it to bring clients down to earth.

            “Many people think that if you file a lawsuit, you're going to get $1 million,” he said. “You're not.”

            Chief Justice Joseph Lambert said the plaintiff winning percentage and average verdicts reported in the Review confirm what he suspected — that Kentucky juries have good radar for detecting fraudulent claims.

            Juries were rarely asked to return punitive damages, which are designed to punish and deter grossly negligent conduct. Plaintiffs asked for punitive awards in 62 trials and got them in 27, for a total of $10.7 million, according to the Review.

            In the largest such award, the Review said, a Perry County jury slapped American Power Co. with $4 million in punitive damages, part of a $6.2 million verdict, after finding the company allowed a truck driver to work knowing he had potentially debilitating asthma.

            After using his inhaler, the driver felt so sick that he headed to the hospital. But he passed out and smashed into a car driven by a 52-year-old nursing aide, who suffered brain damage and other injuries.


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