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The top three jury verdicts of 2004 each awarded the plaintiff more than $1 billion. While those few cases still mark the upper stratosphere, there are any number of verdicts that could properly be described as “massive.” VerdictSearch, a division of ALM, provided us data on the 100 largest verdicts of last year. In turn, we spoke with a few of the small firm lawyers around the country who played a role in some of these eyebrow raising cases. BROWN V. DORSEY, VERDICT $776 MILLION Facts: A former sheriff’s henchmen guns down the newly elected sheriff in front of his home while his wife waits inside. It sounds like a scenario from the old West, but it took place in Dekalb County, Ga., in December 2000. Political newcomer Derwin Brown defeated incumbent sheriff Sydney Dorsey following a bitter political race. Upon taking office, Brown intended to investigate the allegations of corruption against Dorsey’s administration, fire those involved and bring respectability back to the department. But Brown was murdered two days before assuming his new position. An investigation revealed that Sheriff Dorsey masterminded the plot. Dorsey was convicted in a criminal trial and sentenced to life in prison. Plaintiff’s Attorney: Steven Leibel, of the Atlanta firm of Casey, Gilson, & Leibel, represented the family in a civil action. In a strange twist, Leibel had first met Derwin Brown several weeks before his death when Brown consulted him on personal matters. Leibel filed a complaint against Dorsey, his employer Dekalb County, and four of the sheriff’s accomplices. A Superior Court judge granted summary judgment to Dekalb County, ruling the sheriff was a state official and the county was excluded from liability. During the damages phase, witnesses testified to Brown’s devotion to family and commitment to community service. One exhibit was a presentation of Brown’s achievements and goals prepared by the victim himself. “Derwin had put together a PowerPoint presentation outlining his law enforcement background and his plans for the sheriff’s department,” says Leibel. “It was almost as if he himself was able to testify about his goals.” After an emotional trial, the jury returned a verdict of $776 million — the largest in Georgia history. Leibel acknowledges the family’s chances of collecting from the individual defendants are slim. But the verdict ensures the defendants won’t profit from the crime. More than a record verdict, Leibel said, the trial gave him important insights. “I really don’t want this to sound hokey,” he says. “But I saw that there really are people who are extremely committed to the betterment of mankind. Derwin Brown was an exemplary person.” KANSAS CITY POWER & LIGHT CO. V. BIBB & ASSOCIATES INC., ET AL., VERDICT $452 MILLION Facts: A clogged toilet was the catalyst behind a power plant explosion that resulted in a record $452 million verdict. During a fuel safety system upgrade at a KCP&L plant, a computer system built by Allen-Bradley, a division of Rockwell, was installed. In 1999, water gushing from clogged pipes flooded an area with computer hardware. To dry out the system, KCP&L technicians removed parts from the computer. Relying on manuals provided by the defendants, the technicians incorrectly reassembled the computer. Because of the incorrect assembly, when workers later shut down the fuel system, a gas valve thought to be closed was actually open. Gas leaked out, resulting in an explosion that caused more than $600 million in damages. KCP&L was found 70 percent liable. After settlement reductions, the award against Allen-Bradley was $97.6 million. The trial judge later reduced that amount, citing an alleged limitation of liability clause. An appeal is pending. Plaintiff’s Attorney: Randall Hendricks, of Rouse, Hendricks, German & May in Kansas City, Mo., felt a key to the verdict was making sure the jurors could understand the complicated issues. Videotaped depositions and computer graphic images helped. “The case had 220 depositions and each side had numerous experts,” says Hendricks. “We first presented the case to mock juries to make sure the issues were understandable.” Using the mock juries was critical, Hendricks says. “I wouldn’t try this type of case without one.” SASSER V. FORD MOTOR CO., VERDICT $48 MILLION Facts: Two very different versions of events were presented in this case arising from an automobile collision that left then six-year old Kelsey Sasser paralyzed. Plaintiffs contend that Kelsey, seated in the back seat, was injured when the latch of a fold-down seat in a 2000 Lincoln LS failed. The seat collapsed on her back, fracturing her spine. Ford’s defense was that Kelsey’s injuries were not caused by latch failure. They alleged she was in the front seat and that the front airbag struck Kelsey’s back when she either ducked or was thrown aside by the collision. Plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Harris stated that Ford’s own internal documents reflect an extensive history of these latch failures, many reported before the car was on the market. After its release, hundreds of complaints were filed. Even Ford’s own employees driving the vehicles reported latch failures. A former Atlanta medical examiner testified that it was impossible for the type of thoracic spine injury she sustained to come from an airbag. A full-scale vehicle mockup in the courtroom and videotape of extensive sled tests simulating the crash were also critical to the plaintiff’s case. “We did sled tests with dummies roughly the same size as Kelsey,” Harris says. “Watching those gave the jury an opportunity to see visually with high speed film how this seat back could come down during the accident and caused the injuries.” Extensive medical and caretaker testimony helped establish damages, along with videotape of Kelsey’s daily routine. The jury awarded nearly $48 million: $34 million in compensatory damages and $13.9 in punitive damages. The defendants have appealed. Karen Dean is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Ga. Contact her at [email protected]. Related Chart: Major Small Firm Verdicts of 2004

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