Record Personal Injury Verdict: Humans are Priceless, but not Worthless

Personal injury verdict sends a clear message that our community values safety and human life.

Last week a personal injury jury of twelve King County residents declared that freedom from catastrophic disability is worth $80 million:
https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/carpenter-zuckerman–rowley-wins-record-131-million-verdict-in-bar-over-serving-case-300549338.html.

Record personal injury verdict

In May 2014 Melissa Blaylock and her estranged husband, Bruce Greene, went to dinner at Daniel’s Broiler. Daniel’s served Mr. Greene about 20 oz of vodka over a period of 3 hours. On the drive home, Mr. Greene crashed their car and Ms. Blaylock fractured her spine.

Ms. Blaylock sued Mr. Greene and Daniel’s Broiler. Washington law prohibits bars and restaurants from serving alcohol to people who are obviously intoxicated. Establishments make phenomenal profits from selling alcohol, and they have a corresponding responsibility to exercise caution that when their customers leave, the rest of us are safe. Ms. Blaylock resolved her claims against Daniel’s before the jury’s verdict.

The jury awarded Ms. Blaylock $51 million in “economic” damages – medical expenses and the cost of other care necessary to help her quality of life – and $80 million for “non-economic” damages – “pain and suffering.”

Why $80 million? Why not $50 million or $100 million? Why not $2? Ms. Blaylock’s attorneys told the press that she would gladly return the money “to have her life back to normal.” No verdict will truly make up for what she’s been through and will go through.

In a personal injury lawsuit, the civil justice system has two functions, only one of which is its stated purpose: to make up for harm that has already happened and to a lesser extent to deter future harm. A civil jury can’t rewind the clock. It can’t take away a Defendant’s freedom. A money verdict is its voice – the voice of the conscience of the community. In an individual case, the Judge will instruct a jury that compensation is its purpose, not deterrence and punishment, but when a jury tells one restaurant that someone suffered $80 million worth of human losses on top of $50 million in bills, every restaurant must and will think twice about making easy money over-serving their patrons.

Some states prohibit personal inury juries from awarding these kinds of figures for pain and disability. The Washington legislature tried to limit verdicts for pain and disability to $250,000 in 1986, but the Supreme Court quickly struck down the law. Some Washington counties are so conservative that lawyers refer to them as “places cases go to die.” Quadriplegia claims go to trial every week across the country, and $80 million is the highest verdict for pain and disability I’ve ever seen. Is one woman’s quadriplegia worth more than another’s? Is quadriplegia worth more in King County than Grant County?

This verdict doesn’t answer large, broad questions about the value of a person’s quality of life. The verdict is one data point – a valuable, important data point. The verdict says, for at least 12 people, a person’s quality of life is priceless, but not worthless; that our community cares about other humans; that our community demands safety and careful behavior from businesses and drivers.

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