A 61-year-old man from Springfield might be $21.5 million richer because of an injury he suffered on a cruise ship in May of 2011. And just like that the debate over big jury verdicts is once again in the news.
If you haven’t heard, here’s the summary: James Hausman and his wife were aboard the Holland America Cruise Line when a sliding door slammed against Hausman’s temple, causing him to momentarily lose balance. What looks relatively innocuous on security cameras turns out to be much more severe. He later experienced seizures, memory loss and vertigo. Hausman filed a lawsuit against the cruise line for negligence, and a jury felt there was enough evidence to award $5 million for future and past pain and suffering, and $16.5 million in punitive damages, a judgment the cruise line is now appealing and calling excessive.
Like the infamous McDonalds coffee incident before it, this case has all the drama of a made-for-TV movie, drumming up public ire while giving legal analysts a chance to shed light on what the verdict actually means, and how it relates to the larger goals of tort law. Dan Abrams, the legal analyst for Good Morning America, called the verdict “nuts,” saying these types of cases are partly why the American public distrusts the legal system, even though he agreed that Hausman deserved to recover damages. It would be wrong, though, to overlook just how important punitive damages are in situations like this, and why trial lawyers seek big numbers in personal injury cases at all. Abrams may be right to a degree about public perception, but it’s hard to criticize the jury’s decision without having been in the room to hear the facts and assess the credibility of the witnesses.
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Thanks to a security camera, we’re able to see the extent of what happened to Hausman. It’s not necessarily jarring, which, unfortunately, leads to somewhat cynical conclusions. As the story and video began circulating on social media, commenters predictably had lots to say.
“As many times as I got hit by a sliding door or elevator door, I never thought to sue someone for millions. Great idea I guess 🙂 21.5 million is ridiculous,” said one commenter.
“So he gets his head stuck in a door—guess he didn’t have very good reflexes to stop it to start out with. So sick of this sue happy society,” said another.
That people associate such a huge sum with the individual is the problem trial lawyers have had to contend with since the beginning. On top of it, these types of cases are almost always a battle of David vs. Goliath, where corporate defense attorneys are given limitless financial resources.
Really, the role of punitive damages is one of contextual significance and a matter of public safety. During the case, the plaintiff attorney Rick Friedman uncovered that nearly 34 incidents involving sliding doors had occurred on the Holland America cruise line dating back three years. Executives did little to rectify the situation and it finally came back to haunt them. A jury found enough reason to punish Holland America for failing to protect Hausman and other passengers by choosing to ignore an ongoing problem. When Friedman laid out his settlement demands (which the cruise line balked at since the case eventually went to trial) it wasn’t to make one man richer, but to make a large corporation think twice about its decision-making. Since this has all happened, you can be sure Holland America is taking a harder look at every single sliding door and other safety hazards on its ships. Taking $21.5 million out of the coffers is bound to have an impact.
And therein lies the power of punitive damages. You’ll often hear personal injury lawyers use the word negligence. That’s a word that puts large corporations on their heels because it implies a willingness to neglect an ongoing problem. If it proves to be true, then continuous neglect turns into a matter of public safety. All this is to say that the role of punitive damages in personal injury cases is to send a message. Hausman may reap the monetary benefits of this particular message, but it’s worth pointing out that his wife said she’d give it all back if it meant her husband could function normally again. We hear that a lot with our clients, too. Unlike big companies/corporations, money is always the least of their problems.