Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Here's a case that shows that plaintiff's lawyers really go the distance for their clients. In this auto case, the accident happened in 1981, there was a jury verdict for the plaintiffs in 1983, the case was appealsed through the Utah Supreme Court, which affirmed the judgment in 1989 [eight years later], and then the fun really began.

It seems that State Farm, the defendant's carrier, had ample evidence from its own investigation, that the case was a policy limits case. Nevertheless, it failed to offer the policy limits to protect its insureds, the defendants. When the jury returned a verdict in excess of policy limits, State Farm told the defendants that they ought to go ahead and put their home up for sale, to cover the amount of verdict that was excess over the policy limits. The defendants were driven to the brink of bankruptcy before State Farm paid the entire judgment. Then the defendants filed suit against State Farm based on their bad faith and fraudulent refusal to protect them by trying to settle within policy limits.

The bad faith case went on for 12 years, during which time, the plaintiff insureds proved that State Farm altered key documents to cloud the plaintiffs' case, and that State Farm also practiced bad business tactics targeted toward people who were less likely to sue – such as the elderly and minorities. The Utah Supreme Court, with only one dissent, affirmed a compensatory judgment of $2.6 million and a punitive judgment of $145 million.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken certiorari, and you should see the number of amici briefs. I count 21 briefs apparently on the side of the insurance industry, i.e., to limit punitive damages, and 3 from the plaintiffs' point of view. That looks like piling on to me.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on the case, but pretty clearly is defense oriented here: "As recent headlines indicate, there is no shortage of examples of juries zapping corporations and other deep-pocket defendants with massive punitive damage verdicts." Oh really? Then how come I ain't a ga-zillionaire? The fact is, it just isn't true that there is "no shortage." These types of verdicts are few and far between. If they represented 1% of the total numbers of verdicts rendered, then I'd be surprised. And anyway, shouldn't there be a little more outrage at State Farm's depressingly familiar bad faith and malicious tactics, all in the name of increasing corporate profits? Translation: screw the little guy, if we can make more money . That's why State Farm got zapped. The fact that they have taken the case to the U.S. Supremes demonstrates that they still haven't gotten the message. Which means that wronged plaintiffs will have to keep doing this till the carriers in general, and State Farm in particular, abide by their contracts and act in good faith.

The case was argued on December 11, 2002, so we should have a decision in the next six months or so.

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