By Alex Chun
(Los Angeles Daily Journal)
Continuing its downward trend, the dollar total for California Law Business' annual list of the state's top 10 verdicts dipped to $284.6 million in 1996-a 5.5 percent decrease from the 1995 total.
And while the case heading the 1996 list Forti v. General Dynamics Corp., tops last year's big winner, American Samoa Government v. Affiliated FM Insurance, by $18 million, five of this year's verdicts would not have made last year's list.
"These figures seem to be consistent with what we're seeing in cases overall, not just in the top 10," said Deborah A. David, president of the Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles. "Filings are down and punitive damage awards are just as rare as they have always been." In fact, according to the Judicial Council of California, the number of annual Superior Court filings in California has dropped from 1.26 million to 1.19 million over the last two years. "The bottom line as I look at these figures is that the notion of a tort crisis or a personal injury crisis is a figment of someone's imagination," David added.
Echoing David's sentiments is Marie Reubi, a managing editor for Jury Verdict Research. She noted that the average award for personal injury cases in California was 1 percent below the national norm last year, whereas in 1991, California was 6 percent above the national norm. In contrast to the rest of the state, however, "Los Angeles tends to be about 10 percent above the national norm," she said.
All 10 of the cases on this year's top-10 list originated in Southern California, and six of the 10 were tried in Los Angeles Superior Court. This year's list is also marked by two cases-including the case that topped the list-that arose in an employment arena, an area that was neglected in 1994 and 1995. As a result of a breach of fiduciary duty between an employer and employee, plaintiff's attorney Don Howarth won an eye-popping $107 million jury verdict in Forti v. General Dynamics, Los Angeles Superior Court, No. KC 016871. "There are so many opportunities for abuse in the workplace," said Howarth, a name partner with Los Angeles' Howarth & Smith. "Employees are beginning to understand that they do have a recourse when they've been wronged."