Post-COVID nuclear verdicts are a noticeable growing trend of jury panels that are more likely to award large damages to plaintiffs in lawsuits against corporations, particularly in cases involving product liability, personal injury, and environmental damage. This trend is concerning for corporations, as it could lead to significant financial and reputational losses.
Origin of Nuclear Verdicts
The term "nuclear verdict" was first coined in the early 1990s, when juries began awarding increasingly large damages in lawsuits against corporations. This trend was driven by a number of factors, including:
- Public anger at corporate greed and misconduct.
- A perception that corporations were getting away with wrongdoing.
- A growing willingness by jurors to award punitive damages.
Nuclear jury verdicts against original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are becoming increasingly common. In fact, according to the Institute for Legal Reform, the average nuclear verdict for product liability lawsuits over the past 10 years is the highest litigation type with an average verdict of $191 million, including 23.6% of all cases.
There are a number of reasons for this increase, and the aftershocks of COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the factors that contribute to nuclear verdicts. For example, the pandemic has:
- Caused widespread economic hardship, making jurors more sympathetic to plaintiffs who have suffered financial losses.
- Exposed many of the perceived shortcomings of corporate America, such as its greed and lack of accountability.
- Made it more difficult for corporations to defend themselves in lawsuits, due to court delays and other restrictions.
Some major examples of nuclear jury verdicts against OEMs in recent years include:
- Bayer: In 2019, a jury awarded $2.2 billion to a group of plaintiffs who claimed that Bayer's herbicide Roundup caused them to develop cancer.
- General Motors: In 2020, a jury awarded $49.2 billion to a group of plaintiffs who claimed that General Motors' ignition switches were defective and caused them to be injured in car accidents.
- Pfizer: In 2021, a jury awarded $3.6 billion to a group of plaintiffs who claimed that Pfizer's drug Bextra caused them to develop heart attacks and strokes.
- Ford Motor Company: In 2022, a jury awarded $1.7 billion to a group of plaintiffs who claimed that Ford Motor Company's pickup trucks were defective and caused them to be injured in rollover accidents.
As the cost of medical care and other expenses associated with product liability lawsuits continues to rise, and as juries become more sympathetic to plaintiffs, these types of verdicts could become even more common in the future.
to Mitigate the Risk of Post-COVID Nuclear Verdicts
The financial and reputational risks posed by post-COVID nuclear jury verdicts are significant. Corporations that are hit with nuclear verdicts could face bankruptcy or be forced to make significant changes to their business practices. Nuclear verdicts can also damage a corporation's reputation, making it more difficult to attract customers and investors.
By taking steps to mitigate the risk of nuclear verdicts, corporations can protect their financial interests, reputations, and above all - the health and safety of their employees, consumers, and other end-users.
- Focus on prevention. The best way to avoid nuclear verdicts is to prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Corporations focused on safety should invest in safety procedures and training, and they should regularly review their safety practices to ensure that they are effective. This includes staying in compliance with the latest safety standards and best practices – whether they are compulsory or voluntary, like ANSI and ISO for U.S. based manufacturers.
- Have a good crisis management plan in place. If an accident does happen, it is important to have a good crisis management plan in place. This plan should include a process for communicating with the public and the media, as well as a process for investigating the accident and taking steps to prevent it from happening again.
- Be open and transparent. If a corporation is sued, it is important to be open and transparent with the jury. The corporation should explain its safety procedures and training, and it should be honest about any mistakes that were made.
- Develop a strong safety culture. This means that safety is a top priority for everyone in the company, from the CEO to the front-line employees.
- Empower employees to speak up about safety concerns. Employees should feel comfortable reporting any safety concerns without fear of retaliation.
- Learn from mistakes. When an accident does happen, take the time to investigate and learn from it. This will help to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.
- Be proactive in engaging with the public. Corporations focused on safety should communicate with the public about their safety procedures and training. This will help to build trust and confidence between the corporation and the public.
An Opportunity to Improve
The rise of nuclear verdicts is impacting the outcomes of lawsuits across corporations and manufacturers as a whole. But, that doesn’t mean that safety professionals should assume there’s no hope. These cases highlight the importance of having preemptive safety measures in place; these lawsuits would not happen in the first place if injuries were prevented. Optimizing your safety strategy has a twofold benefit: it increases end user safety, and it also displays a positive company safety culture if a lawsuit were to unfold.