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They make headlines. They presumably make some lawyers and their clients very rich. But what happens to mega-jury verdicts after the lawyers and the litigants walk away from the courtroom? Texas Lawyer examined 10 of the largest jury verdicts awarded in the state during 1997 and 1998 to find out what became of them. And we discovered that most massive jury awards in Texas during those years — ranging from $171 million to $22 million in the cases we looked at — tended to fade when faced with a cold, hard examination by an appellate court. That’s not terribly surprising in the age of tort reform. But each case followed its own unique post-trial path as dollars were shaved off almost every verdict we examined. We chose cases in which the verdict was at least 3 years old — assuming it would take at least that long to complete the appellate process. And we looked only at cases in which all appeals had been exhausted. While the causes of action and venues of each case examined varied widely — ranging from a straightforward wrongful death suit in El Paso to a complicated stock fraud case in San Antonio — their fates were largely similar. Many settled confidentially after trial, presumably at a fraction of the amount awarded by the juries. An appellate or trial court axe chopped some verdicts. And a few were absorbed by an offsetting verdict or company merger. One of the largest awards, a $150.9 million jury verdict, was eventually reduced to $13 million. In half the cases Texas Lawyer examined, attorneys on both sides seemed more willing to hammer out an acceptable settlement than take their chances at the appellate courts. “The smart play is to settle,” says William Carmody, a longtime plaintiffs’ lawyer in Dallas. “It used to be you got a good verdict, you could feel confident that if a case would go up on appeal, the court would favor a jury verdict,” says Carmody, of counsel at Susman Godfrey. “But the fact is, I can’t find plaintiffs’ lawyers that feel comforted anymore.” One defense attorney agrees, saying the uncertainty of appellate court rulings is why most big cases settle. “I don’t look myself toward the appellate courts to bail me out,” says Richard Griffith, a partner in Fort Worth’s Cantey & Hanger. “I’m sure that a wise plaintiffs’ lawyer would rather try to settle for something less than the judgment rather than take their chances up on appeal.” Griffith says he’s noticed that jurors are more likely to hand out exemplary damages. “You get a jury that’s p.o.’ed [and] they’ll say, ‘Let’s put these sons of bitches under.’ “ While there are no statistics to show how many cents on the dollar plaintiffs nationally and in Texas collect on average, several lawyers say they’ve noticed a verdict-reduction trend — a possible backlash against unusually high punitive damage awards. Kevin Glasheen, who was treated well in 1997 and 1998 by juries, scored two of the largest verdicts in Texas during those years. He’s more circumspect about the inevitable shrinking verdicts — especially when it comes to punitive damages. “I’m never surprised by the court of appeals taking a hard look at punitive damages,” says Glasheen, a partner in Lubbock’s Fadduol, Glasheen & Valles, who saw $44 million in punitives disappear from one of his wins after trial. “That’s what they’re charged with doing.” For the last decade, Texas appellate courts have been reluctant to uphold huge punitive damages awards. Part of that is due to a conservative Texas Supreme Court, which came into power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, tort litigators say. Another reason is the tort reform of the mid-1990s. On Sept. 1, 1995, the Texas Legislature made damages caps in state courts a reality. According to Section 41.008 of the Civil Practice & Remedies Code, punitive damages are limited to “two times the amount of economic damages; plus an amount not to exceed $750,000 or $200,000.” As a general statement, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips says courts across the nation have been granted more power over jury verdicts in recent decades. “Tort law is far more codified than when I first became a judge,” Phillips says. “And that codification leaves much less to the jury.” On the other hand, Texas law now swings appellate courts away from reversing cases for technical matters, Phillips says. “There’s less reversal on jury issues.” Of course, conservative courts and tort laws haven’t stopped juries from dishing out huge punitive awards when they feel a plaintiff has been severely wronged. Such awards continue to feed a tort-reform mind-set in Texas, where the public hears about the big verdict, but little else about the ultimate resolution of the case, says one media consultant. “The general media will often cover the filing and cover the verdict,” says Mike Androvett, of Dallas-based Androvett Legal Media and Marketing, whose clients include law firms. “And many times they’ll forget about it after the verdict.” IT’S A SECRET In some cases, it’s unlikely the media could report the ultimate results since they often end in confidential settlements. Tort litigators say the secrecy trend is due, in part, to two reasons: defense lawyers who don’t want plaintiffs in other suits to know what their client’s going rate is to settle a case and plaintiffs who don’t think the recovered amount is anybody’s business. Confidential settlements don’t surprise Dallas plaintiffs’ lawyer Peter Kraus. “Virtually every settlement that large corporations do now is confidential,” Kraus says. “There’s always somebody else with a similar case. And they don’t want that number to get out.” Plaintiffs’ attorneys have another reason for keeping the settlement amount quiet — the verdict always sounds better than the amount they eventually settle for, Kraus says. Jim E. Cowles, a partner in Dallas’ Cowles & Thompson, has practiced law for 40 years. He says there’s no question about it — he sees more confidentiality agreements today than ever before. And he thinks they’re bad for the public. “A case is a matter of public record, and I don’t understand why, when you have a jury verdict, it should not be a public record as to what happens to it,” Cowles says. “Why not?” Even though the public may never know the outcome of such cases, a good guess at the recovery amount should start at the actual damages awarded by the jury, says Bill Dorsaneo, a law professor at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. He says the recovery of actual damages is usually the starting point, if not the ending point, in those discussions. “If you could get 100 percent of your compensatory damages, if you don’t take that, you’re a fool,” says Dorsaneo. Contrary to public perception, large punitive damage awards aren’t that common, he adds. “It’s never been easy to obtain punitive damages [in Texas],” Dorsaneo says. “The suggestion that juries have been running wild with punitive damages is not particularly true.” And the thought that appellate courts arbitrarily chop damage awards isn’t particularly true either, says one appellate judge. Richard Barajas, chief justice of El Paso’s 8th Court of Appeals — widely regarded by appellate lawyers as a centrist court on civil cases — says his court does as instructed when considering damages. Barajas says the Texas Supreme Court set strict standards for punitive damage review even before the passage of 1995′s tort reform measures. “We apply the law as expressed by the Texas Supreme Court and people tend to forget that,” Barajas says. “Bear in mind, it doesn’t mean I like it. But we’re very conscientious about our responsibilities. It’s not our role to like it or not like it.”

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