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David Mittleman
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Is a Jury Verdict Ever “Too Much?”

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A recent civil lawsuit in Fayette County, Texas, has prompted discussion in some circles about how juries determine damages. The case involves Robbie Middleton, who was sexually assaulted and set on fire in 1998 when he was 8 years old. Incredibly, Robbie survived for 12 years with his horrific injuries before finally succumbing to a rare form of skin cancer, likely the result of the severe skin trauma and countless grafts he endured. His alleged attacker, Don Willburn Collins, has never been charged criminally in connection with the attack on Robbie, though Robbie’s family hope that will change with the attention the lawsuit has brought to the case. Collins is currently in prison on an unrelated charge of assaulting another 8 year old.

After a two-day trial, the jury returned a verdict of $370 million in actual economic damages and $150 billion – with a “b” – in punitive damages. The award is thought to be the largest civil verdict in U.S. history, surpassing the $145 billion award against Big Tobacco in 2000.

Is a jury verdict ever “too much?” I don’t think so. If we trust juries with life and liberty in criminal trials, surely we can trust them with monetary awards without judges or legislatures imposing damage caps. The right to trial by jury in civil cases is enshrined in the 7th Amendment of the Constitution. Detailed jury instructions, carefully crafted by experienced attorneys and judges, explain in detail to jurors exactly how to determine their verdicts. Many states do not even allow punitive damages in most civil cases.

In this case, Robbie’s parents will probably never see any money from the defendant. The real victory comes from having a jury hear their case in the first place and ultimately acknowledging the loss they suffered. When legislatures take matters out of the jury’s hands by imposing caps or by letting judges decide cases, our right to a fundamentally fair trial is jeopardized.