We like to believe that the courtroom is a level playing field. Certainly not because parties in any civil matter are equally able to pay high-powered attorneys to plead their cases – in the case we discuss below we clearly see that common folks do come up against corporate giants and win – it happens because the law is no a respecter of wealth. Having lots of money to pay spendy lawyers and appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court doesn’t necessarily give you the edge. The truth wins out and that’s the edge we depend upon.
Huge companies have long been suspected of weighing the cost of product recalls against the cost of defending themselves in wrongful death cases. They consider the cost of recalling their product and sales dollars lost in scandal against the loss of human life. Time and again across the entire country we see this play out. Some companies do, indeed, make the decision that it’s cheaper to take chances with your life than suffer certain financial loss. It doesn’t usually work out well for them, thanks to that level playing field.
This year, Georgia’s Supreme Court considered a case, Chrysler Group LLC v. Walden (2018) in which a 4-year-old child suffered the worst of all possible deaths. He was trapped in the back seat of a burning vehicle and could not escape. Witnesses heard him screaming for at least a full minute before the flames finally silenced him.
According to the lawyers for the child’s estate, the fire was caused because this particular vehicle, a 1999 Jeep made by Chrysler, had a rear-mounted fuel tank. The tank was mounted behind the rear axle, a practice well-known to be very dangerous. Prior to this tragedy, a Federal investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already resulted in a recommendation to recall several Jeep models including the one in this case. However, following a magical meeting between the CEO of the Chrysler Corporation and two political appointees at the head of the Federal Department of Transportation the jeep model in which the child died was excluded from the recall.
Plaintiffs questioned a Chrysler representative about the amount of money the CEO of Chrysler made each year. With all benefits and stock options included, the CEO at the time of the accident was bringing home $68 Million a year. (The Corporate lawyers objected as to the relevancy of this line of questioning, but did not claim that the testimony would create bias).
In closing arguments, however, plaintiff’s counsel told the jury that the amount of money requested in the complaint was less than the CEO’s salary for two years. The jury found for the plaintiffs in the amount of $120,000,000 and an additional $30,000,000 for pain and suffering.
Now, it should be said that while the jury found that Chrysler acted with reckless disregard for human life, the trial court did reduce the award amounts to $30 million and also $10 million each.
This case made its way to the Court of Appeals and ultimately to the Supreme Court where the corporate attorneys claimed that the evidence of the CEO’s salary should not have been made known to the jury because it swayed them unfairly.
We wonder what is fair about a tiny child burning in untold agony as he dies.
Georgia’s courts, in spite of mega-dollars spent by Chrysler to defend their company’s obvious manipulation of safety standards, found in favor of the family of the child – thus removing the heavy thumb of money upon the scales of justice.
No matter how big and well-moneyed your opponent is, you deserve justice. We are proud to see this result by one of our Georgia colleagues of the Bar.