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Juries factor down economy into verdicts

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Attorneys better pick a powerful target if they want juries to hand out large verdicts in a down economy.

Milwaukee personal injury lawyer Paul Scoptur learned that lesson during pre-trial focus groups this past fall for a complex drunken-driving case involving a centrifuge operator who had been fired and rehired by Veolia Environmental Services.

The defendant, the Veolia employee, was driving drunk when he collided with Scoptur’s client, who died eight days later and was survived by a daughter.

In seeking damages for the victim’s family, Scoptur said he found the case tested substantially better with focus group jurors when he targeted the company, rather than the individual defendant.

“The first time we focused on the drunk driver, jurors were not excited and the highest award was $1.5 million,” he said. “When we reframed the case to focus on the company, the highest damage we got was $50 million.”

By emphasizing poor corporate conduct, Scoptur ended up earning his client’s family a $29 million verdict, he said.

Savvy plaintiffs’ attorneys can tap into public frustration with the state of the economy — in particular, with the banking and mortgage-lending industries — as a means to land larger verdicts, he said.

“There is a certain undertow of anger. But I think with the right facts, that anger can be turned on the defense for the plaintiff’s benefit.”<BR><BR>Tim Trecek, personal injury attorney, Habush Habush & Rottier SC

“There is a certain undertow of anger. But I think with the right facts, that anger can be turned on the defense for the plaintiff’s benefit.”Tim Trecek, personal injury attorney, Habush Habush & Rottier SC

“There is a certain undertow of anger,” Trecek said. “But I think with the right facts, that anger can be turned on the defense for the plaintiff’s benefit.

“I think in some cases, those jurors understand how individual people are affected by bad decisions made by giant corporations with not much care for the little guy and only for the bottom line.”

That was the case in February, he said, when Trecek obtained a $16 million settlement from We Energies on behalf of eight people who were injured in a 2009 explosion at the company’s Oak Creek plant.

The suit alleged We Energies was aware that a coal dust collector where the workers were building scaffolding was unsafe.

Defense attorney Terry Berres, of American Family Mutual Insurance Co. in Waukesha, remains unconvinced, however.

He disputed the notion that a negative public perception of a narrow segment of the corporate world has had broader implications in jury verdicts.

“Unless there is something specific about extravagant risk-taking or a bailout, I don’t think jurors think of business or corporations in a general sense,” Berres said.

He said he has not seen any change in amounts awarded in auto insurance liability cases during the recession, and in fact, has seen a gradual decline in claims and suits filed during the past few years.

But juries often serve as a barometer of social and economic times, Trecek said, so when people are cutting back in their personal lives or facing hardship, it’s inevitable that some of that will spill over into verdicts.

In particular, he said, younger jurors who are feeling the effects of a recession for the first time can be reluctant to provide substantial damages from individual defendants, compared to larger entities.

“It’s something they haven’t seen in their lifetime,” Trecek said of younger jurors. “So, anyone who says people are not a little tightfisted isn’t being truthful.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at [email protected].

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