In May 2001, Cheryl Jane Hale was driving four children to a sleepover in her 1987 Ford Bronco. She didn’t bother to have the children wear their seat belts, so, when she took her eyes off the road to argue with the backseat passengers, and thus drove off the road and flipped the car, 12-year-old Jesse Branham was thrown from the car and suffered brain damage. A jury in Hampton County, South Carolina (the second jury to be impaneled—the first one was dismissed in a mistrial when it was discovered after two weeks of trial that five of the jurors were former clients of Branham’s lawyers) decided that this was only 45% Hale’s fault, held Ford 55% responsible, which puts Ford entirely on the hook for $31 million in damages. (It’s unclear how injured Branham is: the story mentions that he’s given up athletic dreams and has memory problems, and his father said he worries Branham can’t hold a job, but Branham also has “average grades” in his high school. So either Branham’s injuries aren’t that severe and have been exaggerated for trial, or the average high school student in Hampton County exhibits signs of brain damage, or “average” is a euphemism for “below average,” a la Lake Wobegon.) Ford will appeal. Cases brought against Ford by Hale and the other three passengers are still pending, so Ford’s bill for Hale’s carelessness is only going to go up. (Warren Wise, “Ford, injured youth’s family fight on”, Charleston Post & Courier, Dec. 8).
Hampton County was named a judicial hellhole in 2004 when South Carolina law permitted plaintiffs in the state to pick any county they wanted to bring suit, and taken off the list in 2005 when South Carolina fixed its venue rules, but, of course, Hampton County residents still get the friendly juries there. (Schuyler Kropf, “Hampton County juries have reputation”, Charleston Post & Courier, Dec. 8).