What We Can Learn from the Biggest Personal Injury Decisions of 2020

By Neale deGravelles

2020 was a historic year in all areas of life. But courts also saw record injury awards and major court rulings that will impact civil litigation for decades to come.

In Louisiana, the passage of the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2020, House Bill 57 (“HB57”) will likely have serious repercussions for civil litigation in our state. But across the country, court rulings this year have set new precedents for civil litigation for everything from border shootings to social media and awarded historic verdicts that sent shockwaves through the legal community.

Here are four major personal injury and civil litigation decisions of 2020 — and what we can learn from them.

Major Bill Passed by Louisiana Legislature to Limit the Recovery of Civil Damages

Civil Justice Reform Act of 2020, House Bill 57 (“HB57”) reduces the jury threshold from $50,000 to $10,000 and requires the party seeking a jury trial to post a $5,000 cash bond before the trial. It also made changes to the Collateral Source Rule that limits the recovery of past medical expenses to the amount actually paid, plus forty percent for the cost of procurement.

Proponents of the bill argued that it would lower auto insurance rates while the plaintiffs’ bar opposed it on the basis that it would pressure plaintiffs into accepting unfair settlements. Many district court judges also opposed the bill because of concerns that it would result in a significant increase in low-value jury cases which would bog down their already lengthy docket even further.

The tort reform, passed using extra-legislative powers by one of the most conservative legislatures in Louisiana history, went into effect Jan. 1, 2021. The impact of these changes will be significant. The bill greatly reduces the ability of plaintiffs’ civil attorneys’ in Louisiana to help injured people and to ensure they get a fair settlement.

High Court Bars Civil Damages for Cross-Border Shootings

The Supreme Court issued a ruling barring civil damages in fatal cross-border shooting cases. The decision ruled that the family of a Mexican teenager who was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol agent across the U.S.-Mexico border can’t collect civil damages.

In a 5-4 decision, the court justices ruled that the father of the slain 15-year-old boy cannot seek civil damages under the Supreme Court ruling Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents. The 1971 ruling allows people to collect monetary damages if their constitutional rights have been violated by a federal officer and no alternative legal remedy exists. The boy was unarmed and playing along the Mexican side of the border near El Paso, Texas, when he was fatally shot by a U.S. border agent.

Justice Samual Alito wrote in the majority decision that the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine cautions against extending the Bivens remedy to new contexts and said the cross-border shooting is a “markedly new” context. The majority also stated that allowing a damages remedy in cross-border shootings could potentially have possible national security and foreign affairs implications.

The ruling concerns constitutional law experts and civil rights advocates, who argue that the decision is troubling because it removes the judicial check from the civil rights-related cases. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent asserted that the ruling would leave no legal remedy for those families impacted by cross-border shootings.

Florida Jury Awards Historic $412M Jury Verdict in Highway Crash Case

A Florida jury awarded a historic verdict to Duane Washington in a damages-only Zoom jury trial in October. Washington was riding his motorcycle in July 2018 when he encountered a multi-vehicle crash ahead of him. According to his attorney, when Washington tried to swerve into the emergency lane, he hit a truck stopped there, was thrown from his bike, and suffered life-altering injuries.

The defendant Top Auto Express Inc. was the operator of another truck that was accused of helping cause the pileup by speeding. The company did not appear to have participated in the trial and did not put forth any witnesses or evidence, according to court records. A judge ruled in August that the company had “abandoned” its defense and issued a default liability judgment in the case.

It’s unclear what impact the verdict will have on the trucking industry and future civil lawsuits for auto vehicle accidents. An appellate court may significantly reduce the award if it finds the amount excessive. Earlier this year, a Texas state court of appeals did just that when it reduced a historic initial verdict of more than $100 million against FTS International.

Former New York Times Journalist Wins Case Over Seizure-Inducing Tweet

Former New York Times investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald won his case against a man accused of sending him a seizure-inducing tweet. Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, was awarded $100,000, according to documents filed in Maryland federal court.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar entered a final judgment in favor of Eichenwald and against John Rivello. The suit alleges that the Maryland resident sent an animated strobe image via Twitter that caused Eichenwald to suffer a severe seizure in late 2016.

The case is the first successful one to assert a civil damages claim based on a seizure-inducing social media post and opens the door to increased civil cases around social media-related harm.