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Author: Mario Yepez

Last Updated September 1, 2022

Top Three Nuclear Verdicts™ in California In 2021

 

Three verdicts have exceeded a gross verdict or award of $1.5 million in 2021.i The following article explores these three Nuclear Verdicts™ and what can be done to avoid the nuclear nature of these verdicts.

 

A. The Top Three Verdicts

1.  February 10, 2021: Bench Trial of Motorcycle vs. Vehicle Accident – $23,720,996 Plaintiff Awardii

In the first in-person, personal injury trial in Los Angeles County since COVID-19 government shutdowns began, a nine-day bench trial was held in the matter of Steve Rojas, et al. v. Hajoca Corporation, et al.iii (“Rojas”) which resulted in a gross award of $23,720,996 ($1.2 million of this amount was awarded to the plaintiff’s partner for loss of consortium). On December 5, 2017, the plaintiff, a 40-year-old male, was riding a motorcycle when the defendant’s employee, who was driving the defendant’s vehicle, struck the plaintiff while the defendant was making a left turn at an uncontrolled intersection. The plaintiff did not lose control of the motorcycle but was forced to lay the bike down because he was overcome with pain.

The plaintiff suffered open talus metatarsal fracture dislocation with a crush injury to his lower right foot, a right foot open fracture dislocation, and a right foot open Lisfranc fracture dislocation. Although he underwent numerous surgeries to save his right lower limb, the plaintiff underwent a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg eight days after the crash.

 

Behind the Verdict:

The defendant admitted some liability for the accident but argued 1) the plaintiff should also be assigned some liability, and 2) the plaintiff was speeding when the accident occurred. The plaintiff sought approximately $35 million while the defense argued the plaintiff should receive roughly $5 million. The presiding judge found the defendant fully liable basing the award on an amount appropriate based upon the evidence. The court commented the award was due to the traumatic injury compounded by multiple surgeries, including a revision and an amputation, and ongoing trauma to the plaintiff’s mental state.

 

2.  March 4, 2021: Jury Trial of Physical Assault – Award $1.9 millioniv

On May 21, 2021, in the matter of Juan Manuel Murillo Guerrero v. Walsorth Property Management, Inc .,v the plaintiff received a gross verdict totaling $1.9 million. The lawsuit stemmed from events which took place on November 19, 2017. The plaintiff, a 48-year-old male, was hired by a tenant of the commercial property managed by the defendant to perform minor renovations. The plaintiff was working with his son on the minor renovations and filled a dumpster on the property with debris. The defendant’s property manager was upset about the dumpster being full. Three men, including the property handymen, began assaulting the plaintiff while the property manager watched. The plaintiff sustained a traumatic brain injury.

The trial commenced before a jury of twelve persons on February 22, 2021. The jury awarded plaintiff $400,000 for past non-economic loss and $1.5 million for future non-economic loss. Plaintiff was held three percent liable and defendants were held 97% liable.

 

Behind the Verdict:

Prior to trial, the plaintiff issued a settlement demand for $900,000 and the defendant made a final offer of $400,000. During the trial, the plaintiff argued the property manager asked his own handyman to assault the plaintiff, claiming the property manager negligently brought about the fight and failed to stop it. The defendant argued the property manager had nothing to do with bringing the handyman to the scene. In fact, the defendant argued the plaintiff and his son started the fight. The defendant further argued the plaintiff’s injury was a concussion based on a Glasgow coma scale of 15/15 at the scene, body cam footage showing the plaintiff alert and oriented minutes after the incident, a negative head CT scan, and a negative brain MRI with no signs of permanent brain injury.

The jury sided with the plaintiff, finding the defendant was negligent and the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing harm to plaintiff. Despite the medical evidence, a nuclear verdict was awarded.

 

3. May 4, 2021: Jury Trial of Premises Liability/Physical Altercation – Award $9,328,323.69vi

In the matter of Jones v. Hiller Aircraft Corporation, et al .,vii a jury awarded the plaintiff $9,328,323.69 ($6,328,323.69 in economic damages plus $3,000,000 in non-economic damages). The trial was the first to be held in Fresno County Superior Court since the global pandemic began and it lasted three and a half weeks with the jury deliberating for approximately eight hours.

The case was filed on October 30, 2018 and arose from an incident on July 2, 2018 where the plaintiff, a 24-year-old male, and his co-driver drove onto a dirt road with a truck which was hauling tomatoes. One of the defendants in the case, Hiller Aircraft Corporation (“Hiller”), claimed ownership of the property. Apparently, the dirt road had been abandoned by the city which was also named as a defendant in the case. The plaintiff stepped out of the truck and requested permission from Hiller’s employee to make a U-turn on the property. The property owner demanded $50. As plaintiff’s co-driver began turning the truck around, an altercation occurred between the plaintiff and Hiller’s employee. During the fight, the plaintiff was thrown under the 80,000-pound moving trailer, which drove over the plaintiff’s body.

The plaintiff suffered a moderate traumatic brain injury along with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also suffered a fractured neck and fractured dislocated left shoulder with heterotrophic ossificans with two surgeries; injuries to his left hip; significant injuries to his left knee, which will require a knee replacement and heterotrophic ossificans with at least one surgery; a left drop foot; and stressors on the right side. The plaintiff was deemed mobile with a cane/wheelchair but will not be able to work again.

 

Behind the Verdict:

Plaintiff argued defendant Hiller negligently maintained its property and defendant City created a dangerous condition by failing to place warning signs at the end of the street. Defendant Hiller disputed its property was negligently maintained, and its manager was not within the course and scope of his employment as the physical altercation was personal in nature. Defendant City denied there was a dangerous condition and plaintiff voluntarily made the decision to enter defendant Hiller’s property.

Prior to trial, plaintiff demanded $2,500,000 from defendant Hiller. Defendant Hiller was uninsured but worth approximately $18,000,000 to $30,000,000. The city had $27,000,000 of insurance coverage.

 

B. Takeaway: What Can be Done to Avoid Nuclear Verdicts™

One is left to wonder whether the Rojas Court would have provided a lower judgment if the issue of whether the plaintiff was speeding was not raised. Similarly, would the jury have been less inclined to award the damages it did in Murillo and Jones if the defense had accepted responsibility. The best way to counter Nuclear Verdicts™ such as those in Rojas, Murillo, and Jones is to employ each of the methods set forth by Bob Tyson in his 2020 book, Nuclear Verdicts™: Defending Justice for All .viii

As Bob Tyson writes in his book, defense must always accept responsibility at trial. By accepting responsibility, it diffuses the trier of fact’s anger against the defendant who may have caused plaintiff to suffer horrific injuries. It is important to note that accepting responsibility does not mean the defendant is accepting liability or admitting negligence.

Mr. Tyson also suggests in his book that a number should be given by the defense early in the case, it should be given often, and it should not change. In Rojas , the plaintiff sought roughly $35 million while the defense argued plaintiff should receive roughly $5 million. It is likely that plaintiff’s counsel requested or mentioned that its case was worth roughly $35 million in its opening statement, but how often did the defense mention its $5 million valuation of the case? Mr. Tyson explains that by giving the jury a number, plaintiffs’ counsel conditions the jury so the number plaintiffs are seeking does not seem outrageous. Mr. Tyson posits that defense attorneys in every trial should do the same thing and do it as often as possible. By offering a number to the trier of fact, the defense attorney is not conceding liability, but is instead suggesting that if the trier of fact believes defendant is liable for plaintiff’s injuries, then the evidence supports defendant’s value. In offering a number, the defendant gets its valuation of the case in front of the trier of fact.

In the three cases discussed above, pain and suffering was a clear component of the damages awarded. In fact, non-economic damages are typically a significant portion of a jury verdict. In order to defeat these runaway Nuclear Verdicts™, Mr. Tyson recommends defense attorneys speak to the impact of money on the plaintiff’s life, instead of avoiding a discussion regarding the value of pain and suffering or reciting the law to the trier of fact. According to Mr. Tyson, the impact of money on plaintiff’s life should be addressed head on by the defense attorney with real examples demonstrating the impact of the accident on plaintiff’s life and the value of money on plaintiff’s life using defense numbers that show how the award will affect the plaintiff.

Interestingly, the defendant was a corporate entity in each of the Nuclear Verdicts™ cases discussed above. In order to avoid Nuclear Verdicts™ against corporate entities, Mr. Tyson suggests defense counsel personalize the corporate defendant. While rules dictate the trier of fact must not allow bias, sympathy, or prejudice to enter into deliberations, it is unrealistic to expect the trier of fact not to be persuaded by emotion when it renders its verdict. In the same way good plaintiff’s attorneys understand this, Mr. Tyson suggests defense counsel should make an emotional connection with the trier of fact and find ways for the trier of fact to identify with the corporate defendant. This can be done by informing the trier of fact about the people that are part of the corporate entity and the corporate defendant should be humanized by defense counsel beginning with opening arguments.

Mr. Tyson also points out in his book that defense counsel should always be compassionate and present the truth. Plaintiff’s counsel will argue defendant does not care about plaintiff, the jury, or the community. To combat this, it is imperative defense counsel shows compassion for the plaintiff and highlights ways in which the defendant acts as a force for good in the community.

 

 

 


i As of June 30, 2021.

ii Unpublished. Information referenced for this case includes: February 10, 2021 article on StreetInsider.com, “Panish Shea & Boyle LLP Obtains $23.7 Million Award for Motorcyclist Catastrophically Injured in Vehicle Collision” by Angela Bailey; February 10, 2021 article on CVN Courtroom View Network “BREAKING: $23.7M Awarded to Motorcyclist Injured in Collision With Truck Following LA’s 1stPost-Shutdown Live Civil Trial” posted by David Siegel; and Jury Verdict Alert.

iii Unpublished. Steve Rojas, et al. v. Hajoca Corporation, et al., Los Angeles County Superior Court case no. BC689703.

iv Unpublished. Information referenced for this case includes: Jury Verdict Alert.

v Unpublished. Juan Manuel Murillo Guerrero v. Walsorth Property Management, Inc., Orange County Superior Court Case No. 30-2018-00970253.

vi Unpublished. Information referenced for this case includes: Jury Verdict Alert; May 7, 2021 on The Business Journal website “FRESNO CIVIL JURY TRIAL RESULTS IN $9.3M VERDICT FORINJURED TRUCK DRIVER (HTTPS://THEBUSINESSJOURNAL.COM/FRESNO-CIVIL-JURYTRIAL-RESULTS-IN-9-3M-VERDICT-FOR-INJURED-TRUCKDRIVER/)” posted by The Business Journal Staff; and May 6, 2021 article posted on The Fresno Bee website by Robert Rodriguez “Wrong turn changed truck driver’s life. Fresno jury awards $9.3 million to make amends.”

vii Jones v. Hiller Aircraft Corporation, et al., Fresno County Superior Court, case No. 18CECG04044.

viii Robert F. Tyson, Jr., Nuclear Verdicts: Defending Justice for All (2020).