By Alain Fernandez, Esq.
Georgia has seen a marked spike in “nuclear verdicts,” or verdicts in which a jury awards in excess of $10 million.  This growing trend in Georgia and other parts of the country has gotten worse over the past ten years, but it seems to have picked up pace in the last three or four years and has significantly affected key industries.  For instance, despite the declining number of deaths and injuries from accidents involving large trucks, nuclear verdicts have consistently increased in the trucking industry, and has led some insurance providers to exit the trucking industry altogether.  Several nuclear verdicts have been rendered recently in premises liability and medical negligence cases as well.  Some notable examples include:

In 2019, a jury in Muscogee County issued a $280 million wrongful death verdict against a trucking company because of a tragic accident involving the death of 58 year old school cafeteria worker.  The truck crossed the center line, hitting the SUV head on.  $150 million was awarded for value of the decedent’s life, $30 million for pain and suffering, and $100 million in punitive damages.  Liability was admitted. The jury expressed frustration over what they perceived as an unapologetic trucking company (albeit the plaintiff’s attorney moved to exclude any mention of apologies at trial).

In 2018, a Clayton County jury issued a $1 billion dollar verdict against a security company as a result of a young woman’s sexual assault by one of their armed security guards at an apartment complex.  The plaintiff argued that the security company was negligent in their training and performance and in failing to keep the plaintiff safe.  The jury issued its verdict following a victim impact statement.

In 2019, a Fulton County jury issued a verdict against CVS for nearly $43 million in a negligent security case as a result of a man being shot in a CVS parking lot where the man arranged to buy an iPad from another person.  Neither the victim nor the assailant were customers of the CVS, which was closed at the time – they simply used the parking lot to conduct their transaction.

$14 million dollar verdict against an anesthesiologist and others for a woman who lost sight in one eye and may lose sight in the other.  The plaintiff underwent cervical fusion surgery and the chemicals used to clean the surgery site seeped into her eyes (underneath the bandages covering her eyes) during the surgery. 
These nuclear verdicts likely stem from a change in jurors’ outlook. Information is more accessible and citizens are now more inclined to take action and “correct” perceived corporate wrongs even in venues previously thought to be conservative.  In many cases, juries are only apportioning a very small amount of liability against a criminal assailant and placing the majority of the blame on the corporate defendant.  The cases that result in nuclear verdicts and likely to result in an excess verdict often have similar components – a corporate defendant, bad facts demonstrating a disregard for the danger at issue, and very competent plaintiff’s counsel.  We can expect the trend in nuclear verdicts to continue especially because courts seem more willing to allow plaintiffs’ attorneys to introduce prejudicial evidence of a defendant’s wealth, information which was previously off limits.  As the nuclear verdicts trend continues, it will certainly change the landscape of litigation and settlement negotiations.