Sunday, May 28, 2006

They Sued for Millions: The Case of the $3 Million Pickle Jar

A new feature to The Post-Postmodernist: A Quasi-Daily Supply of Strange, Sad, Ironic, Infuriating, and Bizarre lawsuits which hold only the enormity of their verdict or settlement amounts in common. No internet urban legends here. These are are all the real deal. Let's start off with a classic (or should that be Vlasic?):

“Hurt Back Opening Big Pickle Jar: $3 Million"

Vandevender v. Sheetz, Inc., 200 W.Va. 591, 490 S.E.2d 678 (1997): Plaintiff’s Counsel: David M. Hammer, Hammer, Ferretti & Schiavoni; Hagerstown, MD

Cheryl Vandevender sued her employer, the Sheetz convenience store, after injuring her back while trying to open up a giant pickle jar (the kind that sits on the counter, right next to the giant jar of pickled pigs' feet...). When she returned to work, she brought a note from her doctor stating that she would no longer be able to lift anything heavier than 15 lbs. This was unacceptable to Sheetz management, and she was fired.

She sued Sheetz, and won almost $3 million in a jury verdict. Sheetz appealed all the way to West Virginia's State Supreme Court, but lost. In his dissenting opinion, West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Maynard wrote:

Cheryl Vandevender was essentially out of work for four weeks. She also suffered other minor mistreatment. For this, she received $123,866 in compensatory damages, $170,000 for noneconomic damages, and almost 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages.

But even if a punitive damages award were authorized here, an award of $2,232,740 is simply too much under the facts of this case. The task of determining what constitutes an excessive punitive damages award, in light of due process guarantees, is extremely difficult, and not given to bright line rules. Admittedly, I do not have all the answers in making such a determination, and frankly, I can't presently state what the terms of a good rule should be. I am reminded, however, of United State Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment that although he could not define hard-core pornography, ‘I know it when I see it.’ Likewise, I know an excessive punitive damages award when I see one, and I see one here. I would call this one hard-core. Therefore, I dissent.


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