Juries are back in the headlines, on both sides of the Atlantic. Their verdicts are generally good indicators of societal attitudes. In this article, James Healy-Pratt highlights interesting differences arising from jury verdicts between the English and US legal systems, providing a useful overview to anyone doing business on either side of the Atlantic.
Assessing damages and awarding compensation
Civil and criminal jury verdicts appear in the news every day and their outcomes often demonstrate how different the legal system and approaches are in these countries.
In the UK, a Bristol jury recently acquitted four local residents of charges of criminal damage, after they were accused of illegally removing a statue of an historic benefactor of the City, Edward Colston, who had links to the slave trade. Despite the subsequent debate on the verdict, the acquittal is expected to stand.
In the US, there have been several recent high-profile jury verdicts, including in California where Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO and founder of failed Silicon Valley blood testing start-up Theranos, was convicted on four counts of defrauding investors. She awaits sentencing. Late last year, a Houston jury also awarded $352m (£259m) to an airport ground staff employee, after he was seriously injured at work.
In England, juries tend to be involved in serious criminal trials, some coroner inquests, and very occasionally, in limited civil trials (defamation, false imprisonment and fraud). In the US, however, juries are involved in serious criminal trials, and the majority of civil trials. The perception, backed up by research, is that jurors are good at assessing witness credibility, and tend to be more generous than judges in assessing damages and awarding compensation.
In both England and the US, the common legal remedy for an injury is financial compensation. It is an imperfect system for obvious reasons. In England, it is judges that assess that compensation, with the assistance of guidelines from the Judicial College (15th Edition), which essentially act as a tariff, together with any statutory limitations, such as the Fatal Accidents Act that limits bereavement damages to £15,120. In the US, it is jurors that assess compensation, without any tariffs or limitations (except in some States for some aspects of medical negligence).
Houston, we have a problem
The recent Houston jury award of $352m makes for insightful reading. Mr Cruz, an airside airport worker, was struck by a refuelling vehicle whilst both were following a United Airlines jet at Houston Intercontinental Airport. The sun was said to have obscured Mr Cruz from the view of the driver of the refuelling vehicle. Mr Cruz was paralysed and later suffered a stroke. His serious injuries were life-changing for him and his family. The jury held the driver 30% responsible, and the driver’s employer (Allies Aviation Fueling Company) 70% responsible for faulty training. The jury awarded US$352m – US$35m for medical costs and loss of earnings, and US$317m for pain and suffering. Had the accident happened in England and the case been over here under English Law, a total award of US$35m would be the maximum.
Everything in Texas is big. However, the Houston verdict is an issue, due to the size of the pain and suffering claim award. Having previously been involved in a Texan jury verdict for two US servicemen who died in a helicopter crash, this case demonstrates how awards can vary dramatically. The jury awarded US$85m, of which US$35m was for compensation and US$50m was for punitive damages to punish the defendant corporation. The Texan Judge reduced the jury verdict down to US$29m compensatory damages and US$5m punitive damages. After a number of appeals and legal wrangling, the case settled five years later on confidential terms.
Defending a claim in the US
The US legal system continues to provide serious financial exposure to defendants. In US civil cases, each side pays its own legal fees. Claimants tend to pay their lawyers a percentage (typically 33%) if they win or settle, and nothing if they lose. Defendants generally have to pay their lawyers on an hourly basis, regardless of the outcome. This is very different to England, where winners can see their legal fees being paid by the loser.
Defending a serious US civil claim for compensation generally costs around US$3–5m in legal fees to the point of jury verdict. One distinguishing and expensive feature is the discovery phase pre-trial that involves depositions of witnesses, usually filmed and transcribed. Add on an extra US$2m+ for expensive appellate lawyers taking the appeal route if things have gone badly.
Whether the jury verdict will be a cause for celebration or concern really depends on which side you are standing in the legal action; however, when standing on either side, it is important to seek specialist legal advice on your case.
If you have any questions on the issues raised in this article or would like to discuss a claim, please contact James Healy-Pratt
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.