If you ever want to see a trial lawyer manipulate the press, and the press unskeptically eat it up, you could do worse than to watch the recent performance of Steve Yerrid (Oct. 5-6) in a recent Tampa trial.
The facts convey an undeniably terrible accident. Fifty-year-old high-school-dropout Denzil Blake was cleaning an Isuzu Rodeo at Town ‘N Country Car Wash when he accidentally hit the gearshift, sending the car (which should not have been running) out of neutral. Blake didn’t know how to drive (Florida law allows a person without a driver’s license to operate a vehicle on private property, so there was nothing illegal about allowing unlicensed drivers to move cars in a carwash), panicked, and accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake, sending the car speeding into 43-year-old Brenda Lee Brown, striking her just after she pushed her young son’s stroller to safety; she died of her injuries two days later. Blake was not criminally charged.
The car wash owner eventually admitted liability and agreed to pay economic damages, and offered a million dollars to settle the entire claim, but Brown’s husband sought millions in noneconomic and punitive damages. After a trial where much was made of the car wash manager’s twenty-year-old conviction for perjury, the jury awarded $7.5 million in noneconomic damages and agreed that punitive damages were appropriate. At which point, Yerrid stood up and announced that Brown was a Christian who had forgiven the owners, and would not seek punitive damages. “Mr. Brown believes forgiveness is a virtue. … He believes enough pain has been inflicted.” And, of course, “This was never about the money.”
The Tampa Tribune (Elaine Silvestrini and Howard Altman, “Man’s Act Of Forgiveness Stuns Jury, Honors Wife”, Jan. 27) eats this up (and Bill Childs also highlights the “forgiveness” aspect), without noting:
1) $7.5 million in noneconomic damages is already rather punitive.
2) It’s extraordinarily unlikely that the small mom-and-pop business is even going to be able to pay $7.5 million.
3) It’s quite likely (though far from certain) that there was a high-low settlement in place not much (if at all) above the (alleged) insurance policy limits of $2 million, which would be consistent with those owners tearily hugging Brown at the end of a trial where they were accused of dastard behavior.
The other local paper’s coverage is somewhat better, at least recognizing the practical consequences of the “forgiveness.” (Colleen Jenkins, “For victim’s husband, closure tops revenge”, St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 27). Other coverage: Colleen Jenkins, “Carwash owners go on trial in mom’s death”, St. Pete Times, Jan. 21; “Testimony conflicts in car wash death”, id., Jan. 25). Press coverage does not identify what the basis for the judge’s determination that there was $2 million in policy coverage; one strongly suspects that the insurance company thinks it only has $1 million in policy coverage (and less strongly suspects that the difference is due to a stretched interpretation of the “occurrence” language in the policy), though at this point fighting over that $1 million could subject the insurer to much more liability for “bad faith refusal to cover,” which is why I believe there is a high-low settlement in place. I suppose we can be thankful that Blake admitted hitting the wrong pedal: the more common scenario is that the driver insists that he did hit the brake, and the auto manufacturer is sued. (As it is, I guess we can also be thankful that Yerrid may have been surprisingly uncreative and may have failed to sue the deeper pocket Isuzu for the failure to include a shift-interlock, a claim against auto manufacturers I have seen in other cases. Ironically, one of the reasons there was a delay in implementing the shift-interlock safety feature was the insistence of the Center for Auto Safety and trial lawyers that sudden acceleration was not due to driver error, diverting auto company resources into wild-goose-chase investigations of their cruise control and throttle mechanisms.)
Note the ultimate long-term effect of this verdict: don’t hire immigrant high-school dropouts who don’t know how to drive, even if it’s only for the low-wage job of cleaning the inside of a car, because that could subject you to punitive damages later for their mistakes. Another reason you shouldn’t believe trial lawyers when they claim to be the defenders of the poor.