Chrysler’s lead appellate counsel Thomas Dupree Jr., a Washington, D.C.-based partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, faced a hot bench Tuesday at the Georgia Supreme Court special session at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens.
Dupree hung his oral argument for granting Chrysler a new trial on the company’s objection to his opponent bringing up CEO Sergio Marchionne’s $68 million-a-year compensation. Dupree noted that opposing counsel Jim Butler Jr. of Butler Wooten & Peak wrote that figure on a “giant” board. Then Butler asked the jury in closing arguments to award $120 million for the loss of Remi Walden’s life in a burning Jeep after its rear-positioned gas tank ruptured on impact. The jury awarded the $120 million, plus $30 million for pain and suffering, though the amount was subsequently reduced significantly.
It turns out that Chrysler’s lawyers didn’t exactly make that objection at the trial, as Justice Nels Peterson was the first to point out.
“Counselor, the motion in limine related to Chrysler’s participation in the bailout and Chrysler’s financial condition,” Peterson interjected about a minute into Dupree’s argument. “The motion did not relate to the CEO.”
Justice David Nahmias joined in with what seemed like a point in a law lecture. “That’s a problem,” Nahmias said. “If you want to make a proper objection, you have to figure out why.”
Dupree pushed back, arguing that the objection applied because Marchionne’s pay package reflects Chrysler’s wealth and that the suggestion to the jury was “the company has so much money that it can afford to pay.”
Chrysler’s attempt to set a valuation on the child’s life seemed to fare no better with the bench than it had with the jury. “Why couldn’t the child grow up to be a car company CEO?” Nahmias asked. “You’ve suggested this child would be a ne’er do well and not make anything.” Nahmias was referring to Chrysler’s estimate of the child’s earning potential in Bainbridge—$57 a day.
The Waldens’ legal team split their time between Frank Lowrey of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and Butler. Lowrey said Chrysler changed its argument since the Georgia Court of Appeals heard the case and upheld a reduced judgment last year. Butler used the word “false” at least three times and “misleading” once while referring to Chrysler’s arguments.
Butler made a point to defend his closing argument, saying he was proud of it. Said Butler, “I used Marchionne’s pay to mock their argument that, because this was a small-town boy with small-town parents, that his life wasn’t worth much.”
After the trial, Decatur County Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason slashed the award to $40 million. Chrysler appealed appealed the reduced judgment.
In his last minute of rebuttal Tuesday, Dupree pointed back to the verdict. Dupree concluded, “When a jury awards $150 million, something was amiss.”
The case is Chrysler v. Walden, No. S17G0832.