In June 2013, an Oregon jury awarded $6.2 million to an agricultural worker who became paralyzed from the waist down after his torso was crushed in a hay bale cutting machine.
The accident happened in March 2010. According to reports, the plaintiff forgot to take the hay bale slicer out of automatic mode before leaving the control panel to remove a jam in the slicer. While attempting to remove the jam, the machine suddenly flipped nearly crushing the man’s torso in an inch-wide space in the hay bale cutting machine. As a result, the 21-year-old suffered a severed spinal cord. He underwent five surgeries; however, doctors said he will never walk again.
A lawsuit was filed alleging that the manufacturer of the equipment was liable because the point that crushed the man was not guarded and the crossbar should have been designed with enough clearance to protect workers. The suit alleged the ram had the power to crush a car. The plaintiff sought more than $15 million for past and future medical expenses, his loss of mobility, and his pain and suffering.
Evidence presented at trial demonstrated the manufacturer was aware of at least seven serious accidents – lost fingers and broken or mangled limbs — involving the same or similar machinery. A surgeon testified the man was “essentially cut in half, right through the base of the spine.” The machine “broke his bones and crushed his spine and tore soft tissues.” At trial, the company admitted, after the plaintiff’s accident, they changed the design of the hay bale slicer to eliminate the crush point. After a two week trial and three hours of deliberations, the jury concluded that the defendant was 60% negligent and the plaintiff was 40% at fault, for a net verdict of $6.2 million ($1.33 in economic damages for past and future medical care and $4.86 million in noneconomic damages). However, that wasn’t the end for this permanently injured young man.
Since the jury finding, the case has been tied up in an appeal fight over an Oregon tort reform law limiting noneconomic damages to $500,000. Finally, last month, nearly six years after the tragic accident, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the state cap on noneconomic damages did not apply in this case.
The Oregon Legislature enacted the cap in 1987. Since then, the state Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have gone back and forth whether the cap violates Oregon’s constitutional right to a trial by jury. In fact, a landmark 2016 ruling (Horton v. OHSU) actually appeared to reinstate the cap. Yet, like the case described above, exceptions have been carved into case law leaving Oregonians to wonder when caps do and don’t apply.
Why? Clearly, every injury, every injured person, every case is different. Many factors must be considered when evaluating a case and reaching a settlement. Damages caps mandate a “one size fits all” notion, overriding the decision of jurors who hear and understand the individual case at issue. Many factors go into the evaluation and award of pain and suffering damages. Will the injured be able to return to his/her life as it was before the injury? Will the victim suffer a loss of income? Is the condition (and the pain and suffering it causes) permanent? How can politicians determine that a severed spinal cord and the total loss of use of the lower half of your body is only worth $500,000?
Tort reform laws serve one purpose, and one purpose only – to protect companies at the expense of citizens. When our elected legislators protect corporate wrongdoers and insurance companies’ interests ahead of individual citizens, real people suffer. Corporate profits are prioritized over health and safety. At the very least, shouldn’t the corporate wrongdoer be responsible to this man for the rest of his life? With limited damages recoveries mandated by law, we, the taxpayers end up with the bill. Social security, Medicare, or Medicaid will support this man. How does that strike you? Fair? Of course not, but this is what happens when corporations can buy politicians.
For years, some Oregon state lawmakers have tried to overturn the caps. The latest failed attempt was two years ago. However, recently House Bill 2014 was passed by the Oregon House and has advanced to the Senate. The measure would remove the $500,000 limit on noneconomic damages put in place by a 2016 Oregon Supreme Court ruling.
The Oregon legislature has a moral obligation to do the right thing: Strike down damage caps as unconstitutional. Lawsuit Financial will be watching—do they have the guts to put the people first or will our laws continue to benefit the highest bidder?
Experienced attorney, lawsuit funding expert, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. The series consists of "Betrayal of Faith", "Betrayal of Justice", and "Betrayal in Blue", with a fourth book due out in 2019. You can learn more about these topical political, legal thrillers at markmbello.com. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.