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Anneke Kurt
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Ohio Supreme Court ruling eliminates jury discretion

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Toledo, Ohio personal injury attorney Dale Emch explains how a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling has eliminated jury discretion in an op-ed piece published in the Toledo Blade.

Whether you’re a CEO of a company or a guy who sweeps floors for a living, the Ohio Supreme Court has put its stamp of approval on a law that could have devastating consequences for you if you’re seriously injured in an accident.

In a major opinion issued last month, the court showed contempt for its past decisions, disrespect for the Ohio Constitution, and disdain for the men and women who serve on juries.

The court, in a case called Arbino vs. Johnson & Johnson, said for the first time in Ohio history that it’s constitutional to disregard the findings of a jury if the jury decides to award more than $250,000 to someone injured in an accident to compensate for the person’s pain – even if that pain may last a lifetime.

The court reached this landmark decision despite clear precedent that such a law is unconstitutional. Essentially what the court says this time around is that the Ohio General Assembly really, really, really, really wants to limit damages for insurance companies, so who are we to stand in their way?

Look at what the Ohio Constitution says, then you decide whether what the court has done makes any sense. The relevant part of Article I, Section 5 states, “The right of trial by jury shall be inviolate …”

In Ohio, the constitutional right to trial by jury has always been interpreted to mean that judges and the government won’t be able to invade the jury’s fact-finding function.
That’s why jurors are there, right? To hear the facts of each individual case and decide what they think is fair. Now, though, jurors can spend days or weeks hearing the facts of a case, reach a difficult decision that the injured person should be awarded a sum to compensate for the pain an accident has caused, only to have that decision gutted by a judge if the sum exceeds $250,000.

How does the right to a trial by jury remain inviolate if a law requires judges to violate the decisions a jury reaches? We should probably now read the constitution to say: The right to a jury shall be inviolate, provided it doesn’t cost an insurance company too much money.

The right to have a jury determine the facts of a case has been the backbone of our legal system for hundreds of years. It serves as a check against a judge who might be corrupt or for some reason influenced by one side or the other.

It’s a concept as old as our country and traces its roots to the Magna Carta. As the court’s majority notes, Thomas Jefferson viewed jury trials as “the only anchor, ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

If the court really believes those words, shouldn’t there be a much more compelling reason to upend the jury system than the desire to save insurance companies money?
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a personal injury attorney and I work hard to help people who have been injured in accidents get a fair shake from insurance companies. And, yes, this decision has the potential to hurt my wallet in certain cases. The real impact on my practice likely will be minimal because most people aren’t hurt so seriously that the cap will apply. Regardless of my personal stake, this is simply a matter of right and wrong, and I don’t think people realize the impact of what’s actually taken place.
Everyone has heard about the infamous McDonald’s scalding hot coffee case. It’s a complete oddity, but insurance company lobbyists always trot it out as if it’s the norm. The caps enacted in Ohio are far more likely to affect the average man or woman unfortunate enough to get into an auto accident.

Here’s the nightmare situation that could happen to you or a family member. You’re driving to work when a guy driving a delivery truck takes his mind off the road while talking on a cell phone and plows into your car. Your head hits the window, your ankle is crushed when your car’s frame crumples, and your body is snapped back and forth like a rag doll, and your life has been altered forever.

The head trauma leaves you plagued by headaches. Your ankle injury means that every step causes pain to shoot through your leg. Your back hurts so much that getting a real night’s sleep is impossible. You can’t play ball with your kids anymore or even mow the yard. And the pain doesn’t go away after a week, or a month, or even a year. In fact, by the time you get to trial years have gone by and the docs are telling you you’ll never run again and your pain will always be with you.

A jury hears your case and awards you the cost of your medical bills that may have to be repaid, and lost wages, and decides – after hearing your testimony, your doctor’s testimony, your spouse’s testimony, the defense doctor’s testimony, and the defense attorney’s arguments – that your lifelong pain is worth $500,000. Or $1 million. Or $2 million. Whatever it is, it’s not enough to compensate you for what this accident has done to your life and no one – no one – in that courtroom would change positions with you for any amount of money.

That’s the point where the judge steps in and reduces the jury’s pain and suffering award to $250,000 because that’s what the law requires. The jurors heard the facts and struggled to come to a fair decision, only to have their legs cut out from them by a General Assembly that knew nothing about the facts of your case or the impact the accident has had on your life.