Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
In a move that could bring a measure of relief to the plaintiffs bar, a Los Angeles jury last week hit DaimlerChrysler with a $50 million punitive damages verdict. The verdict, which followed an earlier $5.2 million compensatory verdict, came despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that seemed to put yet another hurdle in the way of large punitive damage awards. “Certainly this is a shot in the arm,” said Robert Nelson, the Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein partner who tried the case. Nelson, lead attorney for the estate of Richard Mraz during last week’s case in Los Angeles County Superior Court, said Wednesday’s punitive damages verdict is the first he’s aware of following the high court’s February 5-4 ruling in Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 05-1256. In that case, the court told the Oregon Supreme Court to reconsider a $79.5 million punitive damages award for a smoker’s widow, saying jurors should have been instructed not to punish the defendant for injuries suffered by “strangers to the litigation.” Nelson said he asked the judge to craft jury instructions that took the Philip Morris ruling into account. “[That ruling] certainly doesn’t help us, but we wanted to be sure any punitive damages verdict would be bullet-proof,” he said. Nelson, along with Lieff Cabraser partner Scott Nealey and San Pedro solo Charles Naylor, took the Detroit automaker to trial for failing to fix a safety defect that caused parked vehicles to unexpectedly go in reverse. In April 2004, Mraz suffered fatal head injuries when an unoccupied 1992 Dodge Dakota pickup truck ran him over after he exited the vehicle believing it was in park. Barry Schirm, lead defense counsel for DaimlerChrysler, said that even with the Philip Morris jury instructions, the recent L.A. verdict is ripe for an appeal.
‘There’s a huge number of legal issues associated with the punitive damages in this case, making it far from bullet-proof.’

BARRY SCHIRM lead defense counsel for DaimlerChrysler

“There’s a huge number of legal issues associated with the punitive damages in this case, making it far from bullet-proof,” Schirm said, adding that a state statute does not allow punitive damages for a wrongful death cause of action. A DaimlerChrysler spokesman said the company is considering an appeal, and forwarded a statement from Assistant General Counsel Louann Van Der Wiele that blames Mraz for the auto accident that caused his death. “The accident occurred because Mr. Mraz ignored proper safety procedures by exiting a vehicle that was still running, then � attempting to jump into a vehicle while it was moving,” Van Der Wiele stated. At trial, Nelson responded to this argument by telling jurors that DaimlerChrysler “had 20 years to take care of this problem [while] Richard Mraz had two seconds to get this vehicle under control.” Robert Peck, who is president of Washington, D.C.’s Center for Constitutional Litigation and argued the Philip Morris case, said he isn’t sure the instructions at issue in that case would necessarily be required in other cases. But “it usually is not harmful to sort of bend over backwards and give instructions that are not absolutely necessary. It certainly eliminates an issue [on appeal],” said Peck, who agreed that the DaimlerChrysler verdict may be the first big punitive award since Philip Morris. Assuming the DaimlerChrysler verdict stands on appeal � which might be a big assumption � it would be a boon for a firm that’s been driving through a rough patch in recent months. In December, star partner James Finberg bolted the firm to join Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain, a smaller San Francisco litigation boutique. Finberg’s departure came not long after firm co-founder Robert Lieff pulled out his equity stake to strike up an aviation law practice while retaining offices and an “of counsel” title at Lieff Cabraser. Name partner Elizabeth Cabraser said Friday that the firm isn’t struggling. “I wish I could tell you that we don’t have an auto tort practice group because we don’t need one. But we have one and it’s growing every day,” Cabraser said.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.