Reining in a runaway jury

The SE Texas Record Apr. 3, 2010, 7:54am

Aside from barroom brawls, one of the more exciting scenes in a classic Western features the chase and capture of a runaway horse or buggy.

Maybe a rattlesnake spooked Miss Daisy's mount or a desperado shot Old Bill the stagecoach driver. Either way, the horse or buggy is rocketing toward ruin, and certain death looms unless the hero in hot pursuit can reach the reins in time.

Horses and buggies aren't the only things that run away. Juries sometimes do, and that's when a hero is needed to rein them in.

Folks in these parts are fortunate to have a staunch, straight-shooting, stand-up guy like "Hopalong" Hoyt to run down a joyriding jury.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt shouted "Whoa!" last month when he rejected a Texas jury's award of $100 million in punitive damages against BP.

Ten workers had sued BP over injuries sustained in a 2005 chemical release at the Texas City refinery.The jury found BP "grossly negligent" and awarded the workers $100 million in punitive damages, on top of $325,000 in damages for pain and suffering, medical expenses, and lost wages.

There was a problem. A finding of gross negligence required proof that BP had ignored an extreme risk of harm and taken no steps to remedy it. In Judge Hoyt's opinion, that burden of proof was not met. BP may have been negligent, he conceded, but not grossly negligent. Thus, he sustained the $325,000 in actual damages but vacated the $100 million in punitive damages.

For Judge Holt there's no justice in the knee-jerk assessment of unwarranted punitive damages.

Nor does society benefit from allowing certain types of plaintiffs and their big payday attorneys to sack successful companies and accumulate generational wealth through courthouse maneuvers. In the end gigantic verdicts aren't paid by evil tycoons, but mostly by affected employees, consumers, and retiree shareholders.

There was a job for the law to be done and Judge Hoyt did it. He reviewed the jury's verdict and found it faulty. We're grateful that Judge Hoyt reined in this runaway jury.

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