November 5, 2013 > Legal Eyes Column: Jury Awards
Legal Eyes Column: Jury Awards
By Von Till
Q. I suffered serious burn injuries when a can of Òcamping fuelÓ exploded while I was using it on a family camping trip. What can I expect in a law suit?
A. You need to prove that the can was defective in design or materials, or failed to have safe handling instructions and warnings. You are then entitled to compensation for medical expenses, wage losses, pain, suffering, and disfigurement.
I obtained a jury verdict of 1.7 million dollars against a manufacturer years ago in a similar case in Alameda County. The product was ÒThrifty Camping Fuel.Ó
A teenager, using the product to re-ignite a fire in his fireplace, squirted the fuel onto logs. A hidden ember ignited the stream from the can, causing a flash back, with resulting explosion of the can and catastrophic injuries.
At trial we proved that the can was defective, lacking a safety device (a spark arrester) patented a hundred years ago. We proved that the canÕs label was confusing Ð failing to warn of the danger and how to avoid it.
Most people agree that medical expenses and lost wages should be reimbursed. But some disagree that money damages should be awarded for Òpain and suffering.Ó
Why do we allow juries to award money for pain and suffering? The reasons are historic and practical.
If injury is caused by anotherÕs negligence, the law provides Òreasonable compensation for pain, discomfort, fears, anxiety and other mental and emotional distressÓ in addition to medical expenses and wage losses.
If the law did not permit such awards, the negligent party would escape responsibility for a significant element of harm. In some cases, economic harm is minimal, but Òpain and sufferingÓ is severe.
For example, a 65 year old retiree who suffers the loss of an arm through anotherÕs negligence will have no wage loss. Medical expense reimbursement will do nothing to compensate for the enormity of the emotional and functional damage resulting from loss of an arm.
Are we to allow a negligent party (a corporation or an individual) to limit responsibility only to reimbursement for medical expenses? Or do we require compensation also for the intangible harm?
For hundreds of years our society has answered ÒyesÓ to compensation for all harm caused, economic and intangible. Our society, by giving such compensation, acknowledges to the injured victim that it understands the loss, empathizes with the injured party, and attempts to do justice as best it can.
Society, by its jury award, tells the injured party that it recognizes the losses suffered Ð the emotional harm, embarrassment, discomfort, and difficulties, for example, of living the next 20 years with one arm.
The emotional losses are as real as the economic costs. Since the jury cannot turn back the hands of time, money compensation is the best that can be done.
We do not permit Òself-helpÓ Ð an eye for an eye. There is a universal human need to settle these matters such that the injured party finds acceptable and which avoids violence.
Primitive societies have similar systems Ð livestock may be exchanged from one family to another to compensate for a wrongful injury. The process substitutes Òreasonable compensationÓ for revenge.
The juryÕs verdict helps to establish and confirm acceptable standards of conduct for the community. If a jury awards damages, it sends a message Ð this conduct in our community is unacceptable. You must compensate for all of the harm done.
The jury system is a valuable means of protecting and promoting an ordered society, with the wisdom of twelve people from the community. Government in the hands of the people acts most directly from the jury box, unfettered by Òpolitics as usual.Ó
The Lesson: Jury awards for intangible losses Ð pain and suffering Ð are an important element in promoting an ordered society. Such awards establish the standards of conduct acceptable to the community, promote conformance to such standards, and acknowledge to the victim an appreciation of the entirety of the harm caused.