The $70 million jury verdict against Johnson & Johnson in a case brought by Deborah Giannecchini, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after years of using the company’s baby powder, is a chunk of change. But, it's not the largest on record – not even close.
Biggest jury awards:
In 2011, a jury awarded $150 billion to the family of a man who was horrifically burned as a child and died 12 years later of a rare skin cancer believed to derive from his burns, according to a story on ABC 13 News in Houston.
The family sued a man accused of dousing Robbie Middleton with gasoline and setting him on fire on his eighth birthday. Middleton’s family did not expect to ever be paid, they saw the award as validation of their outrage over what happened to their child, and hoped it would spur prosecutors to pursue prosecution of Don Collins, the man Robbie told investigators attacked him. Collins was serving a prison sentence for molesting an 8-year-old child.
In 2000, a Florida jury awarded $145 billion against five of the biggest tobacco companies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The award, which was the largest to date and threatened to devastate the tobacco industry, was overturned on appeal.
In 2002, a Los Angeles jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $28 billion to a 64-year-old Newport Beach woman with lung cancer, according to Leagle.com. Betty Bullock later agreed to settle for a mere $28 million to avoid a retrial, but after both parties appealed the amended judgment, a retrial was ordered. In 2009, a jury awarded a more modest $1.3 million – which was upheld on appeal as a reasonable amount for punitive damages. However, Bullock had died in 2003.
In 1999, a jury ordered General Motors to pay $4.9 billion to six people who suffered severe burns in a rear-end collision that caused the fuel tank of their 1979 Malibu to explode, according to The New York Times.
In 2002, a jury awarded Georgia Hayes $2.2 billion in a judgment against a pharmacist who diluted her cancer drugs, according to The New York Times. The pharmacist, Robert Courtney, also was sentenced to 30 years in prison and ordered to pay $225 million in compensatory damages. Hayes was the first of 400 cancer patients to sue Courtney.
In 2004, an Alabama jury awarded $1.6 billion to a woman who had paid $3,000 in premiums to a Tuskegee insurance agent, who in turn pocketed the money, letting her policy lapse, according to The National Law Journal. It was the second time the agent had been sued for the offense by the same lawyer. The parties later settled for an undisclosed amount to avoid appeal. Alabama law capped damages at $20 million.
In 1999, a Milwaukee County jury awarded $1.2 billion to the family of a woman who suffered severe burns in a go-cart accident, according to The Beloit Daily News. The jury found that the owner of Johnson’s Park Go Kart Track had altered the design of his go-carts, causing the gas caps to easily fly off. A 32-year-old mother of two children was trapped under a burning go-cart after it tipped and caught fire, suffering horrific burns that eventually resulted in her death.
In 2014, Sherwin Williams was ordered to pay $1.15 billion to fund a program addressing the health risks of lead paint, according to Law360.com
A legal expert, Loyola University law professor John T. Nockleby, said some huge awards like this are un-collectable, and more “an expression of moral outrage” than a realistic financial outcome.
“Large punitive damage awards are almost always cut back dramatically by trial judges,” he said in an email. The U.S. Supreme Court has set limits on large punitive damage awards requiring careful scrutiny of the award and the underlying violation by the courts.
“It’s a rare punitive damage verdict that today would be upheld if it amounted to more than 10 times the amount of compensatory damages,” he said.