Million Dollar Verdicts

The Richmond Times-Dispatch January 19, 2002
Saturday City Edition
Copyright 2002 Richmond Newspapers, Inc.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch
January 19, 2002 Saturday City Edition


Virginia juries returned 16 verdicts of $1 million or more last year, according to a survey by Virginia Lawyers Weekly, a newspaper for the legal profession.

The survey was the first the newspaper has conducted in Virginia, said news editor John D. Tuerck, who acknowledged that his paper apparently overlooked a 17th seven-figure award.

The newspaper attempted to track all million-dollar verdicts through reports to it and by reviewing wire service reports and by searching the archives of major state newspapers. Legal newspapers published by the Lawyers Weekly’s parent company in other states recorded 14 such verdicts in Michigan and Maryland and 54 in North Carolina, Tuerck said.

One firm, Richmond’s Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, recorded four of the verdicts in wrongful death suits, a type of case once viewed as unlikely to produce a large award.

In each case, the firm portrayed a person who died as the result of someone else’s negligence as an extraordinary individual who was the center of his or her family.

“Juries can be moved to do great things for great people,” P. Christopher Guedri, a partner in the firm, said after a Richmond Circuit Court jury returned a $3.2 million verdict for the family of a 55-year-old Richmond woman.

The traditional wisdom among personal injury lawyers is that the largest awards will go to surviving victims of serious accidents with quantifiable damages such as medical expenses and loss of income.

But state law permits awards for intangible losses such as sorrow, mental anguish and loss of society, companionship and comfort.

Stephen M. Smith, a Hampton attorney, said lawyers are getting better at quantifying such intangibles. Smith worked with Richmond lawyer Edward E. Scher to win $5.2 million in Richmond Circuit Court for a woman who suffered a closed-head brain injury.

Much of that case focused on the effort to prove the diminution of the client’s mental capacity when objective tests did not show such a loss.

Three of the large verdicts involved commercial disputes, including one in federal court in Norfolk that is believed to be the largest verdict ever in Virginia. The jury awarded $116 million, including $95 million in punitive damages, for X-IT Products, which contended that Walter Kidde Portable

Equipment Inc. had stolen its design for an emergency fire-escape ladder. A team of lawyers from Hunton & Williams represented the plaintiffs.

The other two were a $5.2 million award based on a claim by a Texas architecture firm that developers had misused its copyrighted building plans, and a $3.5 million award for Infineon Technologies from Rambus Inc. in a dispute over the design of computer memory chips.

Four large awards were medical malpractice claims, and nine awards – including the four wrongful death cases – resulted from injuries in traffic crashes.

Winning a jury award is hardly the end of a case, however. Many of last year’s awards are on appeal, and the judge who presided over the X-IT case already had indicated that he would reduce the punitive damage award.

In other cases, the attorneys hedged their bets by agreeing to pay a minimum and a maximum amount even if the jury’s verdict was higher or lower.

For example, a jury awarded $2.49 million last month in a medical malpractice case. The state’s cap on such awards reduced it to $1.5 million, but the defendant agreed while the jury was out to pay no less than $500,000 and the plaintiff said he would take no more than $1 million. (emphasis added)