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“Everything’s Bigger in Texas.” That has certainly been true of personal injury and wrongful death verdicts in recent years. But for how much longer?

The Supreme Court of Texas recently issued a ruling that may limit the increasingly large and eye-popping verdicts being issued in the Lone Star State. In Gregory v. Chohan, the Court reversed an award of over $15 million in non-economic damages to family members of an individual killed in a fatal accident.

The Supreme Court of Texas held that “to guard against arbitrary outcomes” the plaintiff in a wrongful death action has the burden of demonstrating:

  1.  the existence of compensable mental anguish or loss of companionship, and 
  2.  a rational connection with supporting evidence to justify the amount awarded.

District Courts and Appellate Courts in Texas have been given a clear instruction that there are limits on non-economic damages awards in even the most tragic cases.

This case arose out of a fatal traffic accident involving several trucks on an icy road near Amarillo. The family of one of the fatalities brought suit against one of the truck drivers and her employer. The case proceeded to trial and the jury awarded approximately $16.8 million to the family of the deceased, including over $15 million in non-economic damages.  The appeals court concluded that this was not “flagrantly outrageous, extravagant, and so excessive that it shocked the judicial conscience.”

While acknowledging the tragic nature of the underlying facts, the Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with particular disdain for the tactic of “unsubstantiated anchoring” where attorneys propose damage amounts by reference to objects with no rational connection to the case. Here, this included a $71 million Boeing F-18 fighter jet and a $186 million painting by Mark Rothko. Plaintiffs’ counsel also proposed assessing damages at “two-cents a mile” for the 650 million miles driven by the trucking company defendant during the year of the accident. The Supreme Court of Texas framed the issue as follows:

We must insist that every aspect of our legal system—including the way we compensate grieving families for the wrongful death of a loved one—yields rational and non-arbitrary results based on evidence and reason, to the extent possible. Any system that countenances the arbitrary “picking numbers out of a hat” approach to compensatory damages awards is not providing the rational process of law that we are obligated to provide, or at least to strive for.

Will the lower courts heed the message and start to rein in the “nuclear verdicts” that have recently been coming out of Texas? That’s a definite maybe and as the concurring opinions noted, further guidance will be required to clarify what arguments are permissible on damages to qualify as being rationally based and evidentially supported. At the very least, it’s a move in the right direction and provides a solid basis to object to some of the more absurd court theatrics.