Courtroom 314 in Los Angeles Superior Court, L.A. County, Central West Division was the scene of a month-long trial this spring. The case was typical of the majority of the hundreds of trials occurring each day across the nation. It was of no great importance to the general public. No media covered the case, and only a handful of spectators were present.
The stakes. However, this trial was very important to the parties. The plaintiff, a high school football player from Torrance, had been permanently crippled while making a tackle during a game. He hit head-first with his helmet and fractured his neck. The accident damaged his spinal cord and caused irreversible nerve damage, which left him a permanent quadriplegic. He cannot move any part of his body below his neck and is only able to maneuver his automated wheelchair by using a chin rod designed for that purpose. He is and will remain totally dependent on others for all of his daily needs for the rest of his life. He brought suit against the manufacturers of the football helmet he was wearing, claiming that it should have prevented his injury.
The sole defendant was a mid-west sporting-goods company that produced the helmet at issue. The company president, a woman in her early forties, represented the company. Because the company had no insurance for this claim, an adverse verdict would have dire, if not fatal, consequences, although the jury was unaware of this fact.
The trial lasted for one month. The jurors heard opening statements and closing arguments from the attorneys from both sides, as well as testimony from witnesses.
During the course of the trial, it became evident that the crippled plaintiff would always require 24-hour assistance and that the family needed money to maintain and care for him. It was also established that the defendant manufacturer was conscientious in its business of providing protective equipment for athletes for many years and that the helmet at issue was not defective and could not have prevented the injury suffered by the plaintiff.
There was no credible evidence that the helmet was defective or in any way caused the crippling injury. However, everyone associated with the case felt enormous sympathy for the injured youth.
The verdict. In California, a 9-3 vote (75%) is necessary to arrive at a verdict in a civil action for many damages. The jury deliberated for two full days. Their unanimous (12-0) verdict favored the defendant manufacturer. Thus the paralyzed football player was awarded nothing, despite the sympathy and other factors which might have easily led to a compromise award for him.
As counsel for the defendant, I believe the right decision occurred. However, this verdict took courage for the jurors to decide. After the verdict had been reached, we spoke with the jury foreman. Above all else, this jury wanted to do the right thing legally and within the framework of our judicial system. In this case, the 12 jurors rejected the convenient path to award damages against a corporation and chose instead the emotionally difficult but legally correct call by following the law governing the case.
This decision will not gain any particular publicity or media attention, but it is a verdict in which all Americans can take pride. The legal system can and does work, and it is particularly fitting that this proof came from Central Los Angeles.
Q: What are punitive damages?
A: This article dealt with a case involving compensatory dam-ages only. In other words, the plaintiffs did not allege that the defendant's conduct was so egregious that the defendant acted willfully, wantonly, or with total disregard for the safety of others.
Punitive damages are awarded in addition to all compensatory damages when such conduct can be established. Generally, insurance companies will not insure a client company against punitive damages.
Q: Why is this lawsuit reported?
A: It is significant that our legal system usually works, particularly in the face of cultural and ethnic diversity and opinions. When a multi-racial jury can overcome the enormous sympathy attached to a case and find only on the law, it is a credit to our system.
Q: How is it that three jurors could find in favor of the losing party in a case?
A: It is only in criminal trials that a unanimous vote is required. In civil trials, generally 5/6 or 3/4 of the jurors' vote is sufficient to return a verdict for either party.
Q: According to California law, were both parties responsible for their own legal fees since the jury found for the defendant, or did the plaintiff have to assume responsibility for both bills?
A: No, in the United States in most cases each party is responsible for its own legal fees. The losing party must pay costs that are relatively insignificant.