A Clayton County, Georgia jury returned a $17.7 million dollar verdict for Lynn Wheeler, who sustained injuries resulting in quadriplegia as a consequence of a car accident on Christmas day in 2005. This eye-popping verdict against the Ford Motor Company includes "punitive damages." According to the Atalanta Journal Constitution report the Wheelers were hit head on by another vehicle; Mrs. Wheeler was wearing the lap belt which was the only available "occupant protection system" in this 2002 Ford Explorer.
This verdict raises a host of questions that I'm sure an appellate court will explore and which are not answered by the sketchy details in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article. By definition, Ford Motor did not cause the acccident, remember we talked about Palsgraf. How does Ford get on the hook for $17.7 million dollars including "punitive damages?" We can only speculate, this being the Bad Lawyer, we'll go for it.
The law of damages fills text books big and heavy enough to secure your boat in hurricane weather. The definition in Black's Law Dictionary runs several pages and inludes many subparts. Generally speaking damages in tort law are in two categories: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are exactly what they sound like, compensation for damages caused by the defendant. In Mrs. Wheeler's case, she has suffered catastrophic injuries, and her husband has likewise suffered catastrophic injuries even if his physical injuries are slight. Her damages include: medical costs: past and future; lost wages; loss of future wages; lost enjoyment of life; foreshortened life expectancy; and pain and suffering. Mr. Wheeler likewise has similar losses including loss of consortium which includes all aspects of the changes in his marital relationship with Mrs. Wheeler. The good lawyer presenting a tort claim involving catastrophic injuries will present all kinds of evidence including videos, photos, economist testimony, medical experts on all the issues pertaining to the injury and aftermath.
Always bear in mind that the Judge decides in the first instnce what issues the jury will consider, in the case of the punitive damages also called "exemplary damages" whether the jury will hear evidence going to "punitives" and render a verdict. Since,excessive jury awards of "punitive damages" are frequently reversed it is a plaintiff's attorney mistake to think it necessarily desirable to obtain a large punitive damage verdict--only the most outrageous or flagrant cases of defendant misconduct merit punitive damages. These are the cases that "shock the conscience" that "cry out for condemnation," because of the defendant's "violence, oppression, malice, fraud, wanton and wicked conduct"demand punishment. Punitive damages are designed to make an example of the defendnat to deter future similar wrongdoing.
I the case of the Wheelers, we can conclude that the jury heard evidence about the callous disregard of Ford Motor Company in providing passenger compartment safety. A simple lap belt, when a shoulder strap or an airbag might mean that Mrs. Wheeler would not have sustained catastrophic injuries? This was an outraged Judge and jury.