In a case involving a high school student who was severely burned in a science class experiment gone awry, plaintiff’s counsel portrayed in detail the pain and anguish plaintiff suffered through during his months in hospitals and inpatient care.[i] The jury awarded a record-breaking verdict of $59 million for past and future pain and suffering.[ii] New records are being broken too often with the rise of Nuclear Verdicts™.
Facts of the Case
In Yanes et. al. v. the City of New York, a seventeen-year-old plaintiff was severely burned in a classroom while his teacher conducted the “Rainbow Experiment.”[iii] In the Rainbow Experiment, plaintiff’s teacher lit bowls of nitrates on fire to show different colors of flame. When the nitrates began to extinguish, the teacher poured methanol on them in an effort to reignite them. This caused a giant fireball, which engulfed plaintiff.[iv]
Plaintiff remained on fire for about a minute as there was not proper fire safety equipment in the classroom.[v] When plaintiff was taken to the hospital, a doctor testified, he had a 43% chance of surviving. Plaintiff underwent numerous surgeries and spent two months in the hospital and three more months in inpatient care at a children’s hospital.[vi]
The case went to trial, and the jury awarded a record-breaking verdict: $59 million.[vii] This included nearly $30 million for past pain and suffering as well as nearly $30 million for future pain and suffering. A judge wrote a 38-page opinion discussing his extensive injuries and the many medical procedures plaintiff had to undergo to survive.[viii]
Reduction of Award Still Breaks Records
Though this verdict was later reduced, the jury still awarded it.[ix] With such a large award, even the reduced verdict still breaks records. The award was reduced to $29 million, including $17 million for future pain and suffering and $12 million for past pain and suffering. New York appellate courts have never approved a higher pain and suffering award.[x]
Arguing Pain and Suffering
Pain and suffering is often the largest part of a nuclear verdict – as it was here. It is crucial defense argues pain and suffering. Defendants can argue pain and suffering by describing the impact of the accident on plaintiff’s life and the impact of money on the plaintiff’s life. Here, plaintiff’s life was undoubtedly impacted to a significant degree.
Defense could have researched new surgical developments that would improve skin texture and appearance for plaintiff’s face; defense could have looked into research about restructuring nerves and sweat glands. While these may not be possible now, defense could have suggested likely cost if this medical technology is developed in the future. Further, defense could have looked into other ways to improve plaintiff’s life.
Additionally, defense could have discussed the school district’s liability. The teacher caused the accident; defense could have posed a question to the jury as to whether or not that merited the entire school district being held liable for such a high number.
But did defense counsel formulate their own number? Did defense counsel describe the best ways that money could be spent to help plaintiff? While it is not clear whether such measures were undertaken at trial, they could be crucial in letting a jury know that defendant truly cares about plaintiff and plaintiff’s well-being. Plaintiff’s counsel will often ask for a dramatic award to see if they can get it from jurors. By ensuring defense has its own number and empathetically puts that number to use to describe how to help plaintiff, defense may reduce unnecessarily high pain and suffering awards. Yanes et. al. v. the City of New York demonstrates how crucial it is for defense to argue pain and suffering.
[i] Record Setting Pain And Suffering Award Affirmed In NY State, Yahoo, (Nov. 22, 2021), https://www.yahoo.com/now/record-setting-pain-suffering-award-142200602.html.
[iii] Decision + Motion on Order, Yvonne Yanes et al. v. The City of New York, Case No. 161066/2014, (Sup. Ct. of the State of New York, Cty. of New York).
[v] Decision + Motion on Order.
[vi] Id. at 11.
[vii] Record Setting Pain And Suffering Award Affirmed In NY State.
[viii] Daniel Siegal, NYC Student’s $59M Award Affirmed In ‘Horrific’ Burn Case, Law360, (Aug. 13, 2020, 9:44 PM EDT), https://www.law360.com/articles/1301105/nyc-student-s-59m-award-affirmed-in-horrific-burn-case.
[ix] Record Setting Pain And Suffering Award Affirmed In NY State.