The Biggest Personal Injury Decisions And Verdicts Of 2020

By Y. Peter Kang
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Law360 (December 18, 2020, 7:44 PM EST) -- Record injury awards and major court rulings caught the attention of personal injury attorneys in 2020, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision barring civil damages in fatal cross-border shooting cases and lower courts' resolution of suits involving questions of liability for social media-related injuries.

Here, Law360 looks back at some of the year's top verdicts and decisions.

High Court Bars Damages in Fatal Cross-Border Shooting

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February that the family of a Mexican teenager who was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent across the U.S.-Mexico border can't collect civil damages.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices said Jesus C. Hernandez, the father of the slain 15-year-old boy, can't pursue civil damages under the 1971 Supreme Court ruling Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents , which allows people to collect monetary damages if their constitutional rights have been violated by a federal officer and no alternative legal remedy exists. Hernandez's son was playing along the Mexican side of the border near El Paso, Texas, when he was shot and killed by agent Jesus Mesa Jr.

The U.S. Constitution's separation of powers doctrine cautions against extending the Bivens remedy to new contexts, and a cross-border shooting is a "markedly new" context, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, which also held that possible national security and foreign affairs implications work against allowing a damages remedy in cross-border shooting cases.

Border Patrol agents, who guard against illegal entry and trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border, have a "clear and strong connection to national security," Justice Alito wrote. "Congress's decision not to provide a judicial remedy does not compel us to step into its shoes."

Constitutional law experts and civil rights advocates said that although the ruling was not surprising given the high court's reluctance over the past two decades to extend the Bivens remedy to other contexts, it was nonetheless troubling because it removes the judicial check from the civil rights equation.

"As a consequence of the court's decision, the Hernandez family and other similarly situated families in cross-border shootings will be left out in the cold," Mahesha P. Subbaraman of Subbaraman PLLC, an attorney representing nonprofit civil rights group Restore the Fourth, told Law360 in February.

The case is Jesus C. Hernández et al. v. Jesus Mesa Jr., case number 17-1678, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fla. Jury Awards $412M in Zoom Trial Over Highway Crash

In October, a Florida state jury awarded $411.7 million in a damages-only Zoom jury trial over the case of a man who was severely injured when he was thrown from his motorcycle while trying to avoid a 45-car pileup.

The Gadsden County jury awarded the verdict to Duane Washington, who was riding his motorcycle in July 2018 when he encountered a large crash ahead of him, according to his lawyer, Ben Crump. Washington tried to swerve into the emergency lane but hit a truck stopped there, was thrown from his bike, and suffered life-altering injuries, Crump said.

Defendant Top Auto Express Inc., the operator of another truck that was accused of helping cause the pileup by speeding, does not appear to have participated in the trial or to have had counsel at trial, and did not put forth any witnesses or evidence, according to court records. The company had been hit with a default liability judgment in August after a judge said it "abandoned" its defense.

Top Auto had been represented by lawyers at Fox Rothschild LLP until July, according to court records.

"The consequential negligence displayed by the Top Auto driver wrecked not only vehicles, but lives," Crump said in a statement. "This is a significant, historic ruling for justice. COVID demanded an unprecedented Zoom trial, but it didn't stop the jury from hearing and understanding the evidence and returning a record verdict."

The jury awarded Washington approximately $410 million, with about $371 million earmarked for future pain and suffering. The jury also awarded each of Washington's three sons $500,000 in damages.

The case is Washington v. Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. et al., case number 18000861CAA, in the Circuit Court for Gadsden County.

Ex-NY Times Journalist Wins Case Over Seizure-Inducing Tweet

A man accused of sending a seizure-inducing tweet to former New York Times investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, agreed to pay $100,000 to end the case, according to documents filed in Maryland federal court.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar in September entered a final judgment in favor of Eichenwald and against John Rivello in a suit accusing the Maryland resident of sending an animated strobe image via Twitter that caused Eichenwald to suffer a severe seizure in late 2016.

Judge Bredar had previously determined that the light waves being emitted from the GIF image sent by Rivello constituted physical contact required to state a battery claim, as they were directed toward Eichenwald and related to his seizure. The September judgment pertained to all three claims in the suit: battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

An attorney for Eichenwald, Steven Lieberman, told Law360 in September that the case was the first to successfully assert a civil damages claim based on a seizure-inducing tweet.

"This is analogous to sending somebody poison in the mail," he said. "My client wants to make sure people understand the consequences of these kinds of attacks. People should know that they can be prosecuted criminally and suffer civil liability as well. He had two motivations: to protect people with epilepsy and hold accountable those who attack journalists for merely doing their jobs."

Eichenwald is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who was critical of President Donald Trump during his candidacy in 2016, according to court papers. He lodged his civil suit in April 2017, a little more than a month after Texas federal prosecutors charged Rivello with cyberstalking. The government said Rivello sent the animated strobe image to Eichenwald embedded with the statement, "You deserve a seizure for your post."

The case is Kurt Eichenwald v. John Rivello, case number 1:17-cv-01124, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

Verizon Pays Record $125M Settlement to Atty Paralyzed by Fallen Pole

Verizon New Jersey Inc. announced in May that it would pay $125 million to resolve claims by an attorney who was catastrophically injured after a rotted utility pole fell and hit her, in what her attorney said was the largest personal injury settlement awarded to an individual in the Garden State.

Maria Meister, now 50, was headed to her job as general counsel for Milberg Factors Inc. in January 2017 when the pole fell on her, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury and paralyzed in three limbs.

"You don't get paid these types of numbers without tragedy, and that's what we have here," Meister's attorney David A. Mazie of Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman LLC told Law360 in May.

A mother of two who was an avid hiker, Meister is permanently disabled and will never work again, according to Mazie. In addition to paralysis, Meister grapples with cognitive deficits due to what Mazie said was a "rare combination" of a spinal injury and a brain injury.

Meister was previously an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, according to Mazie.

A Verizon spokesman expressed remorse for the incident.

"While no amount of compensation can make up for what was lost, we hope the resolution of this case helps bring some measure of comfort and provides care for Maria and her family, now and in the future," the spokesman said.

The case is Maria Meister et al. v. Verizon New Jersey Inc. et al., case number L-004738-17, in the Superior Court of the State of New Jersey, County of Essex.

Snapchat Preserves Win in 'Speed Filter' Injury Suit

The Georgia Court of Appeals in October effectively tossed a suit alleging that the "speed filter" feature on Snapchat Inc.'s photo app distracted a motorist and caused her to hit a man who suffered brain injuries, saying the company didn't owe a duty of care to the man.

A three-judge panel affirmed the dismissal of a suit brought by Wentworth Maynard and his wife alleging that the social media company knew that the app's speed filter — essentially a working speedometer superimposed over pictures taken by the user — would distract drivers and cause them to break traffic laws.

The suit claimed that the feature was negligently designed by Snapchat, encouraging users to endanger themselves and others, and prompted Christal McGee to drive more than 100 mph and collide with Maynard's vehicle, resulting in his permanent brain damage.

The case is notable because Maynard was able to overcome an affirmative defense lodged by Snapchat asserting immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that shields website operators that publish third-party content, only to lose the case on the merits.

The panel held in October that under Georgia law, Snapchat had no general legal duty to protect others from harm caused by third parties such as McGee.

"Put simply, Georgia law does not impose a general duty to prevent people from committing torts while misusing a manufacturer's product. Although manufacturers have 'a duty to exercise reasonable care in manufacturing its products so as to make products that are reasonably safe for intended or foreseeable uses,' this duty does not extend to the intentional (not accidental) misuse of the product in a tortious way by a third party," the panel said, citing case law.

Maynard lodged a petition for certiorari with the Georgia Supreme Court on Dec. 10, according to court records.

The case is Maynard et al. v. Snapchat Inc., case number A20A1218, in the Court of Appeals of Georgia.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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