$17,000,000 Verdict in Backhoe Accident Case.
Most personal injury lawsuits settle before trial. The reason for this is simple. Trials are risky. It is impossible to predict, with any accuracy, how juries are going to decide a particular case and how much money they will award.
Settlements are often the best means for the injured party to receive fair compensation, while the defense lawyer and insurance adjustor avoid the risk of a huge jury verdict that might cause them to lose their jobs.
But, sometimes, a jury trial is the only means by which a catastrophically injured person can get reasonable compensation for his injuries.
In 1995, Reggie Qualls was 27 years old and had just begun working as a laborer for a construction company. On his third day on the job, Mr. Qualls was assigned to operate a loader/backhoe (manufactured by defendant Case Corporation). He had never operated this type of machine before.
His employer told Mr. Qualls to use the loader end of the machine to pick up trash. While doing so, he placed his jacket behind his seat. Later, while standing outside of the machine, near the boom of the backhoe, Mr. Qualls placed a cooler on top of his jacket.
The cooler pushed down on one of the foot pedals that operate the backhoe boom, causing the boom to suddenly swing around and crush Mr. Qualls, causing very serious injuries.
We filed a lawsuit on Mr. Qualls’ behalf, arguing that the loader/backhoe was defectively designed because it did not provide any protection against “inadvertent actuation” of the backhoe boom when someone was located in the “danger zone” between the backhoe boom and the body of the machine.
As a result of thousands of hours of work, we learned that many similar accidents had occurred around the country and that there were many different ways in which the danger could have been eliminated by Case.
The company, in fact, had patented, and began using, a locking device in the 1960’s that would have prevented Mr. Qualls’ accident and others like it, but they stopped using that device after just one year.
As a result of his accident, Mr. Qualls was rendered a triplegic and was paralyzed from the chest down. He also suffered a ruptured aorta and nerve damage to his face and left arm.
According to the experts whom we retained, Mr. Qualls would require approximately $13 million to cover his future medical costs and would never work again.
Before trial, defendant Case offered $3.1 million to settle the case. Because this would not have come close to covering Mr. Qualls’ lifetime medical care costs, we turned it down.
The federal judge presiding over this case decided to bifurcate the trial. This means that the trial would be divided into two phases. During the first phase, the only issue would be whether Case was responsible for causing Mr. Qualls’ injuries.
If the jury decided that Case was responsible, then the trial would proceed to the second phase, the damages phase, in which the jury would have to decide how much money to award Mr. Qualls to compensate him for his injuries.
Defendants tend to like the idea of bifurcation because they are concerned that if the entire case is presented to the jury at once, and the jury hears all about the plaintiff’s injuries and his suffering, they will feel sorry for him and want to find the defendant responsible, regardless of what the evidence shows about the defendant’s actions.
However, in some cases, bifurcation helps the plaintiff because it allows the jury to decide the damages issues without the distraction of having to determine the defendant’s fault at the same time.
In Mr. Qualls’ case, the jury decided, after the first phase, that Case Corporation was negligent and was responsible for Mr. Qualls’ injuries. Then, before the second phase began, Case offered to settle for $8 million. Again, this would not have covered Mr. Qualls’ medical care costs for the rest of his life (and would have provided nothing for his earnings loss and pain and suffering), so we rejected the offer.
During the damages part of the trial, the defendant had to admit that Mr. Qualls was seriously injured, but they tried every way that they could think of to minimize the amount of money that they would have to pay to compensate him.
For example, while plaintiff’s experts testified that Mr. Qualls would need a licensed vocational nurse, with extensive medical training, to take care of him, the defendant argued that he could get by with a home healthcare aide with minimal training, which would be much less expensive.
Next, the defendant argued that the jury could award a much smaller amount of money than what we requested because Mr. Qualls could take this smaller amount of money, invest it in the stock market, watch his money grow and grow and have plenty of funds to cover his medical needs. (After the stock market collapse of 2008, we all know what’s wrong with that argument.)
The defendant also argued that, rather than receive care at home, Mr. Qualls should leave behind his family in Southern California and enter a rehabilitation institution in Colorado, again at much less cost to the defendant.
At the end of the 30-day trial, the jury rejected the defendant’s arguments and awarded Mr. Qualls a verdict of $17,672,135. The case later settled, while on appeal, for $12,600,000, more than four times what Case had offered before trial.
The money that Mr. Qualls received (in 1998) has allowed him to purchase a home and receive the medical care that he needs and has helped him obtain some enjoyment from life despite his horrible disabilities.
Mr. Qualls has traveled to Europe since the trial and has even entered tennis tournaments for disabled people.
None of this, frankly, would have been possible, if we had taken Case Corporation’s pre-trial offer of $3.1 million. While that number sounds like an awful lot of money, it would have been quickly eaten up by the enormous costs involved with Mr. Qualls’ medical care.
Mr. Qualls would have been forced to live with grossly inadequate medical care and would have faced very limited options in life.
For Mr. Qualls, a trial was the only means to achieve the sort of compensation that he deserved and that justice demanded.