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Billion Dollar Product Liability Awards Returned in 2014...Briefly

Steve Wagner

In 2012, product liability awards given by juries were noticeably smaller than in prior years. Thomson Reuters’s Current Trends in Personal Injury for that year showed an average product liability award to be $3,439,035, with a median award right at $1.5 million. Compare that to the same analysis of awards for 2013, where the average claim nearly doubled (to $6.4 million) and the median claim MORE than doubled (to $3.1 million).

2014 was only semi-jokingly referred to as “the year when billion dollar awards returned,” as these high-priced verdicts again came onto the scene of product liability after being absent for nearly ten years. Some of the largest awards in 2014 included two cases originally awarded multi-billion dollar victories, though both were reduced and are in continued litigation.

$23.6 billion was initially awarded to the widow of Michael Johnson, a smoker, who from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Attorneys for Cynthia Robinson sought to prove that smoking killed her husband at age 36, and that R.J. Reynolds was negligent due to their failure to inform smokers of the addictive and carcinogenic properties of their products. Michael Johnson had begun smoking at age 13 and died of lung cancer at 36 years old. This award was reduced to $16.9 million by a Florida circuit judge in early 2015, with the judge stating the substantial award of punitive damages in the prior case was “clearly constitutionally excessive.” R.J. Reynolds still contends the award should be thrown out entirely and has chosen to attempt a new trial on the punitive damages.

$9 billion was awarded to Terrence and Susan Allen from Takeda Pharmaceutical and Eli Lilly. Mr. Allen took the Diabetes drug, Actos, beginning in 2006. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2011. Experts had warned Takeda Pharmaceutical that use of Actos was linked to bladder cancer for a full seven years before Takeda warned its customers. The $6 billion dollars that was awarded for punitive damages was eventually slashed to $27.7 million for Takeda and $9.2 million for Eli Lilly, both of whom are appealing the award.

Other large product liability awards in 2014:

  • Multiple death and injury claims against General Motor related to its ignition switch recalls.
  • $248 million awarded to the families of Tanner and Trevor Olson from Hyundai Motor Co. after the two teenagers died in an accident their families blamed on a steering defect.
  • $525 against Trinity Industries, who withheld information about changes to their guardrail safety technology from the U.S., resulting in decreased safety of guardrails across the country.

If you have been injured or sustained property loss due to defects with any product, such as bad pharmaceuticals or medical devices, fire or chemical hazards, or potentially injurious toys, electronics, or machines, the attorneys at Wagner Reese would like to discuss your product liability claim. Call our Indianapolis-based experts now for a FREE consultation: (888) 204-8440.

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