Texas jury prize of $ 353 million and high-profile third verdict in 2021: will we see more in 2022?

On October 25, 2021, a Texas jury handed down a verdict of $ 353 million to a pedestrian, Ulysses Cruz, a pedestrian from the United Airlines wing, who was struck by a van at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport. in September 2019. Cruz became paraplegic as a result of the accident. Cruz filed a lawsuit against Allied Aviation Fueling Co of Houston Inc (the owner of the pickup truck) and Reginald Willis (the driver of the pickup truck) in November 2019 in Houston (the “defendants”).

Jury trial

The case was originally scheduled to be tried for January 4, 2021. In November 2020, the court issued an order extending the trial until May 17, 2021. The defendants filed a summons in mandamus after the judge denied a trial with jury and ordered a trial before a bench. . The Houston First Court of Appeals granted the application to quash the judge’s decisions dismissing their request for a jury trial.

The trial judge then argued for a virtual jury trial, but admitted that she had never conducted a virtual jury trial before. The defendants complained that the judge had not given them any “rule, procedure or process” to follow in conducting a virtual jury trial and argued that a virtual jury trial would deprive them of the opportunity to select. effectively a jury, present evidence and confront and question witnesses.

The defendants filed a mandamus order that the trial court’s “unilateral, arbitrary and unauthorized” decision to force the parties to hold a virtual jury trial did not comply with the Supreme Court’s emergency orders of Texas rendered during the pandemic, which did not allow a virtual jury trial to be held without the consent of all parties. In June 2021, the Texas Supreme Court suspended the virtual jury trial.

The case was presented to an in-person jury on October 8, 2021, after being transferred to another Harris County judge.

Damage

The jury found Allied 70% and Willis 30% responsible for the accident; the jury did not attribute any fault to Cruz. The jury found Allied was negligent for his failure to properly train Willis and Willis for negligent use of the van.

Bill 19

The Texas Legislature enacted House Bill 19 (“HB 19”) to end the exorbitant verdicts in Texas regarding commercial vehicle accidents by separating the driver’s liability from any liability arguments against the driver’s employer. However, HB 19 only applies to cases filed after September 2021. If HB 19 applied to the Cruz case, the jury would have to find Willis, the driver, responsible in a first trial before a second trial against Allied, the employer would be heard. In doing so, a jury would not know which company employed the driver and the extent of their fault, unless the lawsuit advances, after which the employer’s damages would be assessed. It would be purely speculative to suggest that the conclusions on liability would have been different. However, the separation of liability findings and compensation for damages could act as a buffer and lead to lower damages awards.

Impact of the verdict and future of litigation in Texas

The Cruz verdict follows a trend in the verdicts of Texas juries awarding absurdly excessive damages for uneconomic damages. Whereas in the past, non-economic awards totaled between one and three times the economic damages (a multiple of three only found in the most widely distributed injuries), juries now award up to ten times the economic damages apparently. without much worry. While such rewards have been seen in smaller accidents (eg, slips and falls from work; automobile fender benders “), the trend in larger cases such as Cruz highlights the problem for the future He defies reason for a jury to award $ 35 million in economic damages and over $ 317 million in non-economic damages.

This trend is due in large part to the fact that plaintiffs have not found ways to circumvent old tort reform measures, which placed limits on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in a particular case. Rather than pleading and asking the jury to award punitive damages in bodily injury and wrongful death cases, plaintiffs’ attorneys use pleas for the emotion of jurors under what is a variant of the theory of reptiles (the jury takes the place of the injured plaintiff). When presenting their case, plaintiffs ask the jury to award specific amounts for the duration of the plaintiff’s pain and suffering. Asking $ 1 million for every minute of suffering is now the norm, and recent jury verdicts suggest such demands are becoming more than acceptable in Texas courtrooms.

We are monitoring appeals to the Texas Courts of Appeal and the Texas Supreme Court asking those courts to overturn these verdicts as “excessive”. With the recent trend by juries to award nine digits for non-economic damages, we are cautiously optimistic that these courts will end the excess and give the Texas legislature time to respond with more appropriate and appropriate reform of the law. tort liability.

Our extensive experience in overseeing complex and high exposure cases such as Cruz puts us at the forefront of defending and following up on similar cases for our business clients and insurers. Please let us know if we can help you.

About Jessica J. Bass

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