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No review of the year’s largest jury verdicts can avoid punitive damages, so common among the largest awards. Last year provided another reason to focus on the subject. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision warning that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages … will satisfy due process.” State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 123 S. Ct. 1513. Did lawyers temper their demands? Were juries inspired to exercise restraint? It is too soon to answer these questions, but The National Law Journal‘s annual review of the 100 largest jury verdicts (compiled by NLJ affiliate VerdictSearch — VerdictSearch Top 100 of 2003) did show that awards — and especially punitives — dropped dramatically in 2003. Among the top 50 verdicts, the median ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was 3-to-1 in 2001, 4.4-to-1 in 2002 and 1.6-to-1 last year. Breaking that down, it turns out that the median punitive award dropped by 60 percent last year, while compensatories rose by about 12 percent. The median punitive (adjusted for inflation) was $65.5 million in 2001, $100.4 million in 2002 and $40 million last year. The median compensatory, by contrast, rose from $21.8 million to $22.6 million to $25.2 million. For all 100 verdicts, the median awards, adjusted for inflation, rose from $45.7 million in 2001 to $51.1 million in 2002, only to drop last year to $34.7 million. In 2002, it took a $22.5 million verdict to make the list; in 2003, $18.5 million. Though it’s unlikely that many jurors were aware of the high court’s pronouncements in State Farm, talk about “tort reform” — and highly publicized efforts to advance it — may have influenced jury behavior. Rick Fuentes, a partner in the Atlanta office of the jury consulting firm RandD Strategic Solutions, thinks it has. Fuentes, who consulted for plaintiffs in the case that yielded the largest verdict of 2003, said he finds that jurors are increasingly “savvy about the process.” Television shows like those on CourtTV have educated them, Fuentes said. Jurors are also well aware of large awards that have drawn criticism, like the McDonald’s spilled-coffee case — widely regarded as the quintessential frivolous suit, he said. On the other hand, he continued, jurors also want punitive awards that are commensurate with wrongdoing. And they want them to withstand judicial review. During mock jury exercises, Fuentes has watched jurors voice concern about judges’ slashing or tossing verdicts — and he’s seen them tailor awards accordingly. Theodore Eisenberg, a professor at Cornell Law School, agrees that publicity about tort reform “has had an effect” on verdicts. But he doubts State Farm will add to it. After the last landmark Supreme Court decision on punitives, BMW of North America v. Gore, 116 S. Ct. 1589 (1996), Eisenberg studied all the punitive awards he could find from a year before through a year after, and discerned no effect on the ratios. If any practice area was affected by tort reform last year, the most likely candidate was medical malpractice, given the media attention it received. And verdicts were, in fact, down from 2002. By contrast, juries awarded plaintiffs in intellectual property cases nine percent more money for nine cases compared to 10 in 2002. The big loser was Microsoft Corp., which was hit for nearly 80 percent of the $743 million total. Lawyers were more likely last year to find themselves trying breach of contract cases in U.S. courts over business disputes that reached outside national borders. These cases sometimes stretched judicial resources, not to mention lawyers’ skills. Likewise, difficult circumstances sometimes inspired lawyers to seek unusual solutions, as in a defamation suit in which a Chicago firm was forced to rely on the depositions of absent witnesses. Rather than bore the jury with hours of dry recitations, the firm hired actors to bring the testimony to life. This is the NLJ’s 15th annual review of the year’s largest jury verdicts, and the third consecutive year the paper has compiled a Top 100 list. The amounts are those actually awarded by jurors, independent of post-trial enhancements or reductions. When a verdict is trebled by law, we report the larger amount. When a jury has awarded damages for more than one cause but has been informed in advance that these will not be combined, only the highest award appears. Attorney fees and costs are included only when specifically awarded by juries. If something about this list looks a little odd, it may be the absence of a tobacco case at the top. This is the first time in four years that a billion-dollar tobacco verdict did not lead the way. Related Articles: When a Zebra Is Not a Horse * National Law Journal subscription required Pint-Sized IP Plaintiffs Win Against the Giants * National Law Journal subscription required Holding a Jury: A Life in Pictures * National Law Journal subscription required Globalization a Factor in Top Verdicts of 2003 * National Law Journal subscription required Med-Mal Cases Down — Is ‘Tort Reform’ the Cause? * National Law Journal subscription required Related Chart: VerdictSearch Top 100 of 2003

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