| October 20, 2017

Business Groups Say Jury Award Threatens Georgia Business Climate

Atlanta Business Chronicle | Dave Williams |  

Business groups say jury award threatens Georgia business climate

A $40 million verdict in a wrongful death case would threaten Georgia’s ability to attract jobs, business groups are warning.

The Georgia Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an appeal Oct. 24 stemming from a jury award in the death of a 4-year-old boy in Southwest Georgia. Remington Walden died in 2012 when the Jeep Grand Cherokee in which he was riding was rear-ended and burst into flames. A jury ordered Chrysler Group LLC to pay his parents $150 million, an award that was subsequently reduced to $40 million by a trial court judge and affirmed by the Georgia Court of Appeals.

But even the lower award, if it stands, would represent the largest wrongful death award in Georgia history.

“The ‘whopping’ award signals to businesses in this state that they may now be exposed to excessive damage awards,” Randy Evans and Anthony Morris, partners at Dentons US LLP, wrote in an amicus brief filed on behalf of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “It ignores well-settled law and points Georgia in a direction that it should not go.”

The case has drawn such widespread interest in the business and legal communities that amicus briefs also have been filed by the American Tort Reform Association, the Product Liability Advisory Council and the U.S. and Georgia chambers of commerce.

The briefs argue the trial court improperly allowed the jury to consider the compensation of Chrysler’s CEO in calculating the award to the victim’s parents and that the Court of Appeals refused to take into account evidence that prior awards in similar cases were far below $40 million.

“This comes down to fundamental fairness,” said Kade Cullefer, executive director of Georgians for Lawsuit Reform, a business-backed organization formed earlier this year. “It’s going to determine whether we’re going to have a system where we are fairly adjudicating cases or a system where we actively encourage juries to stick it to job creators and people who are successful.” The Dentons brief warned Georgia’s status as the No. 1 state for business, as affirmed four years in a row by Site Selection magazine, could be in jeopardy.

“Businesses need predictability in the court system,” Cullefer said. “If you continue to get bad cases, your state gets a reputation that’s difficult and unpredictable in the civil justice system.”

But Jim Butler of Columbus, founding partner of Butler Wooten & Peak LLP, who represents the Waldens, dismissed the argument the large award would make Georgia less of a magnet for jobs.

“This ‘bad for business’ bit is both nonsense and two-faced,” Butler wrote in an email to Atlanta Business Chronicle. “Nothing about the Walden case is ‘bad for business.’ Not killing children with indefensibly bad products ought to be good for business.”

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