Colleen and Robert Middleton suffered an unspeakable tragedy. In 1998, their 8 year old son (Robbie) was allegedly set on fire by a sexual predator named Donald W. Collins. While he survived the initial attack, Robbie Middleton died 13 years later of cancer that originated from the skin grafts utilized to treat his burns.
The criminal case inexplicably disintegrated (read more about it here) , so the Middletons sued Mr. Collins for wrongful death. After seeing videotaped testimony from the now deceased Robbie, a very emotionally charged jury found in favor of the plaintiff. However, they decided to “send a message” by awarding a very, very large award. $150,000,000,000.00. That is $150 billion if you lost track of the zeros.
It is easy to feel deep sympathy for the Middletons, but this jury award has potential ramifications that reverberate beyond a convicted child molester’s bank account. Massive jury awards create big news. Unfortunately, people often don’t read the details and only see the headline: “Parents awarded $150 billion seek justice for son,” “Texas parents hope $150 billion award prompts change,” and “Jury awards record $150 billion to family of burned boy.”
The Middleton’s jury was not the first to do this, but it does make prior examples seem downright reasonable in comparison. In 2009, a Florida jury awarded $330 million to the mother of a child that was killed by a drunk driver. Across the country, there are many examples of criminals losing civil suits (especially involving the deaths of children) and being told to pay hundreds of millions of dollars. Sadly, everyone knows that these are debts that will never be repaid.
These huge damage awards offer eye-catching headlines and vindication, but little else. In fact, the headlines rarely give the impression that this was a symbolic award that will never be paid (see above). Instead, they tend to stoke the ire of those who believe that artificial damage caps should be legislated.
The law carries the unenviable burden of applying monetary value to life, pain and suffering. Juries tasked with this face an agonizing calculus. Huge awards that have no root in reality don’t help, they only serve to cloud waters that are already murky.
Blogger: Matt McCusker