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Attorney Van O'Steen

Some Juries Award Far Too Little for Injuries, Death

Van O'Steen

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Recent news reports have described notable instances of juries awarding large sums of money in seemingly irrational ways.  These accounts are distressing to many of us, especially when we are told that runaway jury verdicts are responsible for the rapidly rising insurance rates that affect us all.

Arizonans need not look far for examples of peculiar jury behavior.  One such incident occurred in Phoenix.

Dennis Taylor lost his wife when a train struck the car she was driving. The warning signal at a crossing was not working properly.

A lawsuit was filed, and eventually the case went to trial.

During the trial, the jury learned that the railroad was aware of the problem of the defective signal well before Taylor's accident. The cost of repairing the broken warning device was $200. It went unrepaired, however, until after Mrs. Taylor's death.

Dennis Taylor's lawyer urged the jury to make the railroad pay a substantial sum in punitive damages.  The purpose of punitive damages is to punish those who act in extreme disregard of the safety of others, and to deter future careless behavior that might result in injury or death.

The Taylor case presented the potential for an enormous verdict against the railroad. Dennis Taylor's emotional and financial loss alone would be considered by many to be incalculable. Couple that with the claim for punitive damages, and the Taylor verdict promised to be front-page news.

Following six days of deliberations, the jury returned with its verdict. It found the railroad to have been careless in the operation of the crossing signal. The jury also noted that the railroad had been warned many times of the defect.

The verdict was for Taylor – in the total amount of $7,200; not exactly front-page news.

The jury foreman explained that the jury had settled on $200 as an appropriate punitive damages award "because that was how much it would cost to rewire the train signal."

Fortunately, distortions of this magnitude occur very rarely in our jury system. Equally rare, although better publicized, are distortions involving excessive jury awards.