Greenville, SC – “The right of trial by jury shall be preserved inviolate.” S.C. Const. art. I, § 14. Recent trends in jury verdicts across the United States show large increases in the amounts and frequency of jury verdicts in favor of injury victims. Research from 2015 through 2021 indicates exponential growth in the largest jury verdicts awarded. Specifically, the average jury verdict on the National Law Journal tops the “100 List”, which has tripled between 2015 and 2019. The average verdict climbed from $63 million in 2015 to $215 million in 2019. Additionally, the data showed that there was a 30 percent increase of verdicts in excess of $100 million dollars.(1)
The debate remains open as to the cause of the higher jury verdicts. Several factors are impacting verdicts here in South Carolina. South Carolina injury lawyers are effectively using life care planners, accident reconstructionists, and trucking safety experts to expose careless and reckless conduct. Also, the number of people electing to retain a personal injury attorney is on the rise. Cultural changes are another factor driving the unprecedented growth in liability verdicts. Juries today place a high level of emphasis on safety. They are quick to hold corporations, trucking companies, manufacturers, and others responsible for careless behavior on our roadways. A recent survey revealed that 88 percent of potential jurors believe that companies should take any and all precautions no matter how impractical or costly to ensure the safety of their products.(2)
The data also showed that when injured parties involve a personal injury attorney, their return is quadrupled. Furthermore, appellate courts in the last decade have begun to uphold larger verdicts; noting that the amount of monetary damages is a question of fact to be decided by a jury. Here in South Carolina, there have been multiple eight figure verdicts over the past twelve months. On average, across the United States, the Plaintiff is successful approximately 66 percent of the time in a jury trial involving car wrecks or trucking crashes. The odds tilt toward the Defendant in medical malpractice cases. Product liability claims seem to be more of a mixed bag, with Defendants and Plaintiffs essentially batting about 50 percent.(3)
South Carolina jury verdicts continue to show that injured Plaintiffs, when appropriately represented by an effective personal injury law firm, can provide the much-needed assistance that injured South Carolina citizens need. However, the automobile insurance industry and trucking insurance companies are teaming up to restrict the rights of victims in South Carolina. The corporate response to the trending increase in jury verdicts has been to dedicate significant resources into lobbying legislators. The ultimate goal, by the insurance lobby, is to restrict and destroy the right to a jury trial. Damage caps, immunity doctrines, and so called “phantom damages laws” are all tools that big insurance companies want enacted to destroy the people’s right to have a jury decide the outcome of their case.
In South Carolina, “The right of trial by jury as declared by the Constitution or as given by a statute of South Carolina shall be preserved to the parties inviolate. Issues of fact in an action for the recovery of money only or of specific real or personal property must be tried by a jury unless a jury trial be waived.” SCRCP 38. Despite this guarantee, the insurance lobby has spent millions in South Carolina over the last decade to push pro-corporate legislation which is designed to strip away the personal right to a jury trial by limiting the impact of the jury’s award. Unfortunately, appellate courts have often sided with corporate interest in ruling that damage caps passed by the South Carolina state legislature are unconstitutional. Specifically, the South Carolina Supreme Court has stated:
The Right to a Jury Trial
“Respondents argue that the limitation on damages infringes upon the right to have damages determined by a jury and therefore, the right of trial by jury. We disagree. Here, the statute does not restrain the fact-finding province of the jury or prevent a jury from assessing a plaintiff's damages.” See Etheridge v. Medical Center Hospitals, 237 Va. 87, 376 S.E.2d 525 (1989).
“In Etheridge, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a state statute limiting recovery in medical malpractice claims to $750,000.00, despite a “right to jury challenge.” The court in Etheridge acknowledged that the jury's fact-finding function extended to the assessment of damages but reasoned that once the jury has ascertained the facts and assessed the damages, the constitutional mandate is satisfied and that thereafter, it is the duty of the court to apply the law to the facts. The reasoning of Etheridge was adopted by the fourth circuit in Boyd v. Bulala, 877 F.2d 1191 (4th Cir.1989) in upholding the same statute against a “right to jury trial” challenge under the United States Constitution.”
“Similarly, we find that the limitation on recovery as set forth in the Tort Claims Act does nothing more than establish the outer limits of a remedy provided by the legislature. A remedy is a matter of law, not a matter of fact. Although a party has the right to have a jury assess his damages, he has no right to have a jury dictate through an award, the legal consequences of its assessments. Accordingly, we find that the fundamental right to a trial by jury has not been infringed upon.” Wright v. Colleton Cnty. Sch. Dist., 301 S.C. 282, 290–91, 391 S.E.2d 564, 569–70 (1990)
The court, in these cases, has used legal gymnastics to justify limiting South Carolinians’ right to a jury trial. The court reasons that so long as a jury is allowed to determine the amount of your damages then the constitution is satisfied. See Id. However, under the current law the constitutional guarantee that a jury gets to decide your fate is a farce. In many cases the jury’s decision is reformed or changed to comply with the damages cap law. Id. The reality is that your right to a jury trial has been infringed and is not currently held inviolate under current South Carolina law.
It is more important now than ever before to find effective representation for your South Carolina injury case. Christopher Pracht is a personal injury trial lawyer practicing in South Carolina. His law firm handles wrongful death and catastrophic personal injury cases. He can be reached at 864-712-7317 or via email at [email protected] Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.