The post-pandemic era has brought about some of the largest jury verdicts seen to date. For example, just this month an Iowa jury awarded $97.4 million to a child and his family in a medical malpractice birth injury case. In Washington State, $185 million was awarded to three teachers who were exposed to long-lasting chemicals in a local school. In Houston, a jury awarded more than $352 million to the family of a former United Airlines employee who was paralyzed when a van driver struck him from behind on an airport tarmac. A jury in Florida returned a verdict of $412 million against a trucking company for a non-fatal crash. In Titus County, Texas, a jury returned a verdict of $730 million for the death of a 73-year-old woman involved in an accident with a truck hauling equipment.
This post-pandemic verdict inflation is of concern to many different industries. In particular, large corporations, trucking companies and the pharmaceutical industries have felt the effects of these verdicts. This recent trend could be the result of many different factors, such as social media—that is, social inflation due to legal advertisements promising large settlements or the observation of large verdicts awarded to others—the COVID-19 pandemic, a generational shift as millennials take over juries, or simply the desensitization to the magnitude of these awards.
In today’s climate, all it takes is the click of a button to create wide-spread news on corporate malfeasance or a workplace accident. It is easier than ever to promise large settlements to a vast majority of people, or to create an uproar over a perceived injustice. With the backlog of cases that were put on pause during the pandemic, the internet is saturated with multiple cases involving large companies and big dollars.
Even with the pandemic in the rear view, citizens still tend to feel anxious about their own financial situations. There is an overreliance on emotions which may lead to an increase in post-COVID damage awards, seeing jurors sympathizing and empathizing with individuals who have been wronged.
Some believe the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) is driving these changes. Millennials tend to be more collaborative when it comes to jury decisions, and they tend to feel passionately about things like environmental issues and pay disparity. Millennials have different life goals and experiences than past generations—for example, many have no interest in working a 9 to 5 job for large corporations until they retire. In addition, millennials place a greater value on corporate social responsibility than older generations and may feel more empowered to hold companies accountable when facing perceived corporate misconduct.
Others opine that the average juror simply does not grasp the true value being awarded. This might be due to the constant barrage of high dollar amounts in the media—such as hearing Elon Musk has a $204,000,000,000 net worth or that Congress has passed a $1,500,000,000,000 spending bill. One stark example that we could all learn from is the difference between a million and a billion seconds: a million seconds is 12 days, while a billion seconds is 32 years. Watching a mock jury quickly and without much debate jump from $100,000 to $100 million certainly brings this concept to mind.
Regardless of the cause, companies should be wary of this influx of so-called runaway verdicts; it not only increases their potential litigation exposure but may also drive up liability insurance premiums.
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