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If punitive damages are a measure of juror anger, there were a lot of angry jurors last year. In October, a Kansas City, Mo., jury expressed its outrage at Robert R. Courtney, a pharmacist who boosted his profits by diluting cancer medications, by hitting him with $2 billion in punitive damages on top of $225 million in compensatory damages. Hayes v. Courtney, No. 01CV218871 (Jackson Co., Mo. Cir. Ct.). Plaintiff Georgia Hayes presented doctor testimony that her chances of surviving ovarian cancer were greatly reduced because she didn’t receive full-strength chemotherapy in time. According to Hayes’ attorney, Grant L. Davis, of Kansas City’s Davis, Bethune & Jones, jurors knew she would probably never see that $2 billion. Courtney’s lawyers told them that most of his assets had been seized by the federal government. “We asked them to send a message, and they did,” Davis said. “After the trial, jurors said, ‘Anyone who does something like this should beware.’” Some attorneys think that corporate scandals — Enron, WorldCom — have predisposed jurors to add more zeroes to their verdicts. Robert J.A. Zito of New York’s Fischbein Badillo Wagner Harding, was on the losing end of a $184 million verdict, composed of equal parts punitive and compensatory damages. In re Real Estate Associates Ltd. Partnership Litig., No. CV98-7035DDP (C.D. Calif.). Zito had the unenviable task of defending National Partnership Investment Corp. against claims that it defrauded its investors just as Harvey Pitt’s troubles at the Securities and Exchange Commission and huge settlements by Tyco and other corporations put corporate scandal back on the front pages. Of his October trial date, Zito says, “I don’t think you could have chosen a worse month.” Those anecdotal impressions of greater juror furor seem to be borne out by a look at the top 50 verdicts in 2001 and 2002. In both years, juries awarded punitive damages in 22 out of 50 cases. In 2001, total punitives for all 22 cases was $3.2 billion. For 2002, the figure was $32.6 billion. Of course, it could be that punitives increased not because jurors were more irritable, but simply because more wrongdoing came to light in 2002. There is some support for that view in the fact that total compensatory damages in cases in which punitives were awarded went from $803 million in 2001 to $1.1 billion in 2002. Nonetheless, the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages shot up substantially. In 2001, juries awarded, on average, punitives that were four times the size of compensatory awards. In 2002, punitives averaged 29 times the size of compensatory damages. Using average figures tends to overstate the importance of extreme cases, such as Bullock v. Philip Morris Cos., the tobacco case in which a jury awarded an astounding $28 billion damages and $850,000 in compensatory damages. Yet even using the median — the line dividing half the cases above and half below — shows an increase. In 2001, the median punitive award was 2.3 times the size of the median compensatory award. In 2002, the ratio was 4.5. Cornell law professor Theodore J. Eisenberg, an expert on the statistical analysis of jury verdicts, cautions that looking at the biggest verdicts of the year may not reflect typical jury behavior in the broad range of cases. His research leads him to believe that the image of out-of-control punitives is exaggerated. In his view, juries behave much like judges. For both, the size of punitives shows a fairly consistent relationship to the size of the compensatory awards.

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