A recent courtroom verdict for a sexual assault civil case includes a damage award that has been called the highest in U.S. history. On May 22 in Jonesboro, Georgia, Hope Cheston was awarded $1 billion in compensation for a rape she suffered in 2012. At the age of 14, according to the New York Times, Ms. Cheston was assaulted by an armed security guard at an apartment complex she was visiting to attend a friend’s birthday party.
While the rapist was prosecuted criminally, this trial was for a civil lawsuit brought against the guard’s employer by the victim’s mother. Georgia jurors agreed with plaintiffs that the security company (ironically named Crime Prevention Agency) is responsible for ensuring that guards are properly trained and appropriately placed into service. A security guard at an apartment complex is meant to protect residents and visitors — that this man committed a violent crime against Ms. Cheston in the course of his duties certainly constitutes an outrageous breach of conduct.
Precedent Setting Verdict
Ms. Cheston’s lawyers have called the $1 billion verdict the “largest ever awarded in the United States in a sexual assault case.” However, since the employer’s business is not valued at $1 billion, it is unlikely that Ms. Cheston will collect anywhere near this amount. (Court judges can and do significantly reduce jury awards when they feel it is necessary.) This case does set an important precedent, though, and demonstrates the capacity of juries to award plaintiffs generously for proven damages.
When a plaintiff, with the help of his or her attorney, is able to demonstrate clear physical and/or emotional damages as a result of the conduct of the defendant, juries often respond favorably. In Ms. Cheston’s case, several came over to hug her after they were dismissed by the judge. In any civil case where the victim suffers lasting harm, such as mental anguish, the jurors consider past, present, and future ramifications.
Employment Law Verdicts
As an employment law firm, Feldman Legal Group is interested in jury behavior and verdict trends. Although Ms. Cheston’s was not an employment law case, per se, the concept of negligence in the workplace was pivotal to the outcome. Employers are liable for significant damages if they do not hire, train (and treat) employees with due diligence.
In employment law, large verdicts are often seen in cases involving sexual harassment, blatant discrimination, and wrongful termination. Any case that causes the victim substantial damages and/or shows particularly egregious conduct on the part of an employer has potential for a very significant jury award. High-dollar employment law cases have included a $95 million dollar Illinois jury award against Aaron Rents for sexual harassment (and assault) and recently in New Jersey an $8.5 million award for wrongful termination based upon the plaintiff’s medical condition.
The vast majority of civil and employment law cases, however, settle before going to court. If the evidence is compelling, these settlements also tend to be generous. The Feldman Legal Group law firm has handled many cases that have delivered significant verdicts and settlements for our clients. It is tremendously satisfying to see justice done and done well.