U.S. Supreme Court
Bypassing Arguments, High Court Tosses $5M Verdict in Fear-of-Cancer Case
Posted Jun 1, 2009 11:04 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
In a per curiam opinion issued without oral arguments or full briefing, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a $5 million verdict because the trial court refused to instruct the jury on the standards for awarding damages for fear of cancer.
The plaintiff, former CSX Corp. railroad worker Thurston Hensley, suffered from brain damage and the lung disease asbestosis. At trial, Hensley’s lawyer sought pain and suffering damages that included fear of developing lung cancer. The trial judge, however, refused to submit jury instructions proposed by CSX that would have required jurors to find the fear was “genuine and serious” and outlining standards of proof established in the Supreme Court decision, Norfolk & Western v. Ayers.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict, calling the trial judge’s decision “clear error,” the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) reports. The decision to hear the case without full briefing or argument is a sign that a majority believed the ruling was clearly wrong, the newspaper says. The opinion (PDF) and the certiorari grant were both issued today.
The Supreme Court decision overturned a Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling affirming the verdict. The Tennessee court had said little would be served by issuing the proposed jury instruction because “the mere suggestion of the possibility of cancer has the potential to evoke raw emotions,” and “any juror who might be predisposed to grant a large award based on shaky evidence of a fear of cancer is unlikely to be swayed by the language of Ayers.”
The Supreme Court said juries must be presumed to follow the instructions given to them. The Tennessee ruling “is a serious misunderstanding of the nature and function of the jury. The jury system is premised on the idea that rationality and careful regard for the court’s instructions will confine and exclude jurors’ raw emotions.”
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented from the ruling, saying the per curiam opinion was premised on a footnote in Ayers that he did not read as requiring the genuine-and-serious instruction. He suggested today's ruling will raise more questions.
“For instance, if it is per se error for the trial court to deny a request for a genuine-and-serious instruction, is it also per se error to fail to employ particularized verdict forms? After all, that too is a verdict control device listed in footnote 19,” he wrote.
“The risk that the court’s opinion will generate more confusion than clarity is inherent in a summary decisional process that does not give the parties an opportunity to brief and argue the merits."
The case is CSX Transportation v. Hensley.