Nuclear Verdicts 101

If you find yourself wondering, “what even is a Nuclear Verdict anyway?” no need to worry, we’ve got you covered. 

A nuclear verdict can be defined as: an exceptionally high award that surpasses what should be a reasonable or rational amount. 

More often than not, a nuclear verdict will provoke an automatic and intense response of shock, far more so than your average trial outcome which could simply be summed up as unfavorable.

Perhaps one of the best (and most timely) examples of a case containing an explosive verdict is an incident which just occurred in October 2021 and involved a Highway Patrol Officer. The officer was rear-ended while operating his motorcycle, and developed a traumatic brain injury which was heavily disputed in court. Rewards were predicted to reach between $5 and $10 million at max. The verdict: $49.6 Million to the officer.

These sky-high verdicts tend to happen more commonly in personal injury cases and rarely in cases that do not involve injury. Personal injury cases allow for noneconomic damages (pain/suffering, emotional distress, etc.) where there are no objective standards set to limit potential awards. They can also strike more of an emotional chord.

As of late, sky-high verdicts are on the rise, which can be quite disturbing from the defense’s point of view. And its ripple effect of triggering higher costs for the entire insurance industry as a whole is clearly visible. Of course it’s to be expected that there would be some push and pull between plaintiff and defendant during trial proceedings. But, a true nuclear verdict goes beyond comprehension in that it cannot be justified in any sensible way.

The Four Biggest Influences on Nuclear Verdicts:

  1. A growing lack of understanding of how much $1 million is worth
  2. The impact of enormous sport-star contracts (desensitizing)
  3. Psychological “anchoring” techniques being used by plaintiffs’ counsel
  4. Element of punishment for bad corporate behavior, even though punitive damages are not in the case

As we face the harsh reality that nuclear verdicts are becoming more of a common occurrence in today’s trials, we are further reminded of the importance of beginning an investigation as soon as possible when an incident has occurred (as well as notifying your Carrier). Because at the end of the day, evidence and facts should always be able to outperform trial techniques.