On August 24, 2021, a Florida jury handed down a $1B verdict in a case involving a crash that killed an 18 year-old college student. The victim was stopped in a line of traffic due to an accident caused by a commercial driver distracted by their phone when his car was struck from behind by another commercial truck driver going 70 miles per hour on cruise control and failed to brake. The verdict shattered the record of $411M that was previously believed to be the largest verdict for a commercial fleet, and again thrust the term ‘nuclear verdict’ into our lexicon.
But just what is a nuclear verdict, and why do they happen?
Re-thinking Nuclear Verdicts
“I think what’s meant by ‘nuclear verdict’ are situations where somebody believes the value of the case is ‘X’, and the jury returns a verdict of 10X to 30X,” says Joe Fried, founding Partner of Fried Goldberg LLC and Co-Founder of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. “It’s what I call an ‘outperform’ verdict. It seems out of sync with the damages that exist in a case.”
According to Fried, the term ‘nuclear verdict’ is largely misused to simply describe a ‘big’ verdict – north of $10 million. “I think that’s a terrible way to define a nuclear verdict because there are a lot of tragedies I’m involved in where just the medical bills to take care of somebody for their remaining life expectancy far exceeds $10M,” Fried says. “In a case like that, can a verdict of $10-$12 million really be described as ‘nuclear’?”
An Explosive Reaction
So why does a verdict go nuclear? What causes the jury to hand down a decision that drastically outperforms the appropriate damages in a case?
In most cases, larger than expected verdicts are not due to a misunderstanding by the jury of the value of damages, but rather a reaction to something beyond the base facts of the case; something more important to the jury than dollars and cents.
Oftentimes, these factors are entirely preventable actions (or inactions) on the part of the defending organization, which can trigger an emotional response from the jury and render a reactionary verdict disproportionate to the damages caused.
Consider these 3 factors that can often lead to nuclear verdicts in commercial vehicle accidents:
1 – Failure to Admit Fault
It’s difficult to find a nuclear verdict that began with an admission of guilt by the defendant. This isn’t for malicious reasons – counsel will almost never recommend it in their defense strategy. However, regardless of motive, this course of action will almost universally offend juries, and cause them to become reactionary.
2 – Systemic Safety Misconduct
If juries see a defendant company that routinely overlooks workplace safety and has a history of repeat violations, it can cause them to render disproportionate verdicts. If safety breaches are ignored, or employees are mistreated or aren’t trained properly, juries can often use their verdicts to send a message, and make the company pay.
3 – Failure to Adopt Available Safety Solutions
More than ever before, companies have access to a variety of different technologies that prevent avoidable accidents, sometimes by as much as 50%. Juries can see the failure to take available safety precautions such as these as offensive, and punish companies for that failure.
The Trend Isn’t Slowing Down
Nuclear verdicts have been on the rise for at least a decade, and they’re only getting more common. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to worsen this trend, particularly with corporate mistrust being at an all-time high. Fatal crashes have risen as well, even with fewer vehicles on the road.
Taking the necessary precautions now can help to minimize the risk of incidents and nuclear verdicts in the future.
To learn more about nuclear verdicts and why they happen, listen to our free webinar with Joe Fried and the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS): Nuclear Verdicts: Out of Control or Controlling the Outcome?