Articles Tagged with money damages

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Recently, I was in a courtroom in Fulton County, Georgia watching a medical malpractice trial.  I was not involved in the trial; I was just a trialwatcher. When I have time, I still enjoy watching trials, both civil and criminal, for the real life drama on display. No movie or play can capture the sheer, raw emotion of a trial.  A jury’s decision can be life-altering. In a civil trial for money damages,  a verdict for the plaintiff can give the family of the injured person or decedent a sense of Justice and much needed closure. A verdict for the defendant can give a defendant a sense of vindication. The whole trial process is designed to find the truth. In fact, the word “verdict,” in Latin, means “to speak the truth.”

I have often seen normal laypeople who are testifying realize, on the stand, they have underestimated the emotional pressure that the formality of the courtroom imposes on them. There is something about the utter dignity and formality of the Courtroom, with the judge sitting high on the bench, with a court reporter taking down every word uttered, with 12 citizens sitting in judgment, with a Deputy Sheriff at the door, that brings the enormity of it all into crystallized focus. In this medical malpractice trial I was watching, there was a moment with one of the defendants on the witness stand when he simply broke down during his testimony. He began to tear up on the stand and the began to cry, and the plaintiff’s attorney quickly asked the judge for a break. But it was too late. The defendant began crying uncontrollably, and literally fell down on the floor from the weight of it all. His attorney had to go help get him off the floor and then out of the courtroom as the bailiff quickly took the jury back to the jury room. It was clear that the defendant had suffered something so strong emotionally that he could not go on. We were all worried about his mental well-being. I knew his attorney and knew he would make sure his client was supported emotionally and not left alone.  I believe his attorney was sincerely concerned about his client’s ability now to go on with the trial and meaningfully participate in the trial and assist his attorney. In speaking with several of the attorneys in the case, both plaintiff and defense, not one of us had ever seen something like that happen in a trial before.  Most of us had practiced for over 30 years. Meanwhile, the plaintiff’s attorney felt just as strongly that the defendant’s outburst of emotion directly in front of the jury was so overly prejudicial that the jury could not help but sympathize with the defendant, regardless of any instruction the judge might give to the contrary. Telling a jury they may have no sympathy for either side is easier said than done when a witness has just broken down in front of their eyes.  Discussion was had by all counsel with the judge in the judge’s chambers, and I was not privy to what they discussed and argued. Eventually, the defendant who had broken down on the stand reappeared in the courtroom. He looked shaken and seemed to be trembling. He was visibly trembling as he took sips out of a water bottle. There was no question in my mind that this was sincere and beyond his control. I felt empathy for him. After about an hour, though, the judge and all counsel came back into the courtroom and the jury was brought back into the courtroom. The judge declared a mistrial and thanked the jury for their work and instructed the jury they were no longer needed and that their jury duty had been fulfilled.

Wow.

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Jury duty is often the last thing people want to do. It interferes with their jobs, their family schedules and essentially everything people do on a daily basis. No one has jury duty scheduled on their calendar.  So, it is often the case once citizens report for jury duty and are actually sitting in a courtroom going through jury selection, particularly in civil cases for money damages, that jurors want to know “Why is this case being tried?  Why am I here?” Some people might, wrongly, assume it is because the plaintiff is greedy. But that is almost never the case. Rather, so often, the answer is because the insurance company for the defendant, the party at fault, refuses to be reasonable and refuses to resolve the case before trial.  For some unknown reason, that seems to be more and more the answer to the jurors’ questions of “Why are we here?”

Several recent trials in Georgia demonstrate that completely. In a trial in Gwinnett County last month, a jury awarded $17.8 million to the widow of a man who plummeted three stories to his death after trying to close an improperly installed dormer window.  No offer of settlement by the insurance company who represented the company at fault was even made until six days before trial. Understand, the trial occurred only after years of depositions, hearings, document exchange…known as discovery. Yet the insurer didn’t even attempt to broach resolution until six days before trial. The plaintiff’s settlement demand had only been $1 Million. Now the insurer is looking at a judgment for $17.8 Million. The insurer could have saved $16.8 Million had it even attempted resolution.

In another case recently tried in Cobb County, the jury returned verdicts for two plaintiffs of $77,000.00 to one plaintiff and $80,000.00 to the other. They also awarded an additional $35,000.00 for property damage. Highest offers prior to trial were $4,000 and $5,000 respectively.  Yet the plaintiffs’ medical expenses alone, without even considering pain and suffering, were $12,000 and $9,000 respectively.  When an insurer offers half of a plaintiff’s medical expenses it is not really trying to reach a good faith resolution of the case.

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What is the price of a life lost? Could you put a price tag on your own life or that of a family member, killed at the hands of a negligent defendant? How much would you want people to say your life would have been worth?

These are the questions that juries must face when evaluating “damages” to award in wrongful death cases. Plaintiffs’ attorneys must ask the jurors to award money to a family who has lost its loved one due to the negligence of someone else. It’s tough to ask and even tougher to answer, but when parents have lost their child because of someone’s negligence, there must be some sort of monetary justice for the family.

So how much is a life worth? The Georgia Code provides: “The amount of the recovery shall be the full value of the life of the decedent.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-5. But what determines that full value of life? The judge may instruct the jury: “You should consider the gross sum that the deceased would have earned to the end of life had the deceased not been killed… in determining the amount of the full value of the life of the deceased. The full value of the life of the deceased is not limited to the amount of money that could have or would have been earned had the deceased not been killed.”

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The easy answer to the question I pose above is an emphatic “Yes!”  Right?  For any homeowner to have his or her home wrongfully foreclosed upon and scheduled to be sold at auction on the Courthouse steps, as we still do here in Georgia through nonjudicial forclosures ( a topic which deserves it’s own blog), would create enormous, undue emotional stress.   Your home is, more than likely, the largest purchase you have ever made and has the highest financial investment value of anything you have ever personally invested in. We call our home our “castle.”  So when a corporation wrongfully forecloses on your castle, your home, trying to sell the house right out from under your homeowning feet, don’t you think this would just naturally cause you some undue stress?  Worrying whether you would lose your house?  Lose your biggest investment?  Lose the roof over your and your family’s heads?  Should whoever did so wrongfully foreclose on your house have to face justice in the form of a jury?

One would thing so, but when it comes to our ever-increasing conservative Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer, unfortunately, seems to be “not so fast.” In a recent 11th Circuit opinion, the Court held although a person in such a position of being wrongfully foreclosed upon may very well have a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the amount of proof one must offer just to get past the judge and get to a jury may be impossible to meet, thus ending the homeowner’s ability to seek redress for the wrong. In Lodge v. Kondaur Capital Corp., et. al, issued on May 8, 2014, the Eleventh Circuit (of which Georgia is a part) held that the plaintiffs, the Lodges, had not offered enough “proof” of emotional distress suffered by them at the thought of their home being wrongfully foreclosed upon.  The Lodges, at the time, were in bankruptcy.  Federal bankruptcy laws forbid foreclosure upon a home that is in bankruptcy. The Defendants in Lodge willfully violated this law, known as the “Bankruptcy stay” and moved to foreclose upon the Lodges home, even though that was the very reason the Lodges had filed for bankruptcy.

The Court found against the Lodges, denying them the right to have a jury decide their case.  The Court said the Lodges hadn’t offered the Court enough proof of emotional distress. But whether there is sufficient proof of a claim should be a question to be decided by a jury, not three appellate judges. As the attorney for the Lodges, Ralph Goldberg, noted in response to this narrow opinion, “I don’t understand why anybody would not think that…hearing that your house is about to be foreclosed upon is significant emotion distress.  It seems to me they’re out of touch with how normal people lead their lives.”

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