Nuclear Verdict Largest Ever in the State of Ohio



By: Doug Holthus and Ashley Hetzel

A Columbus, Ohio family was recently awarded $787M by a federal trial court jury following the death of the family’s 2-year-old son in 2018.

On May 22, 2018, the 2-year-old was playing with his brothers in their bedroom when he climbed the ladder of his bunk bed and became trapped in the ladder, in the opening between the top rung of the ladder and the bottom of the upper bed frame. The toddler’s cause of death was determined to be “positional asphyxia due to chest compression between bunk bed and the bunk bed ladder.”

The family sued both the distributors and the Vietnam-based manufacturer of the bed. The family had previously settled their claims against the distributor(s) for undisclosed amounts. However, the foreign manufacturer never responded to the lawsuit and did not appear in court. The court therefore entered a default judgment against the manufacturer.

Following a two-day damages jury trial in the Southern District of Ohio federal court in Columbus, Ohio, with the manufacturer as the sole and remaining defendant, a jury awarded the family $522M in punitive damages and $265M in compensatory damages ($175 million in compensatory damages for the survival claim; and $90 million in compensatory damages for a wrongful death claim). The $522 million punitive damages award correlated directly with the date of the toddler’s death – May 22.

This award is believed to be the largest jury award ever in the state of Ohio. It is notable that the manufacturer’s failure to appear and defend the case, and the default judgment entered against it, arguably played a role in the large jury award against it. However, the result speaks to the need of both a vigorous defense and “anchoring.”

Generally, Ohio caps punitive damages to twice the economic loss or $250,000, whichever is greater, yet this cap is inapplicable in cases involving permanent deformity, loss of use of limb or bodily organ system, or injury that permanently prevents a person from being able to independently care for themselves. As such, the jury’s award of $522M in punitive damages is not subject to the $250,000 cap as it is within twice the economic loss and involved the permanent deformity and loss of use of bodily organ systems.

Ohio is traditionally considered to be a relatively conservative legal venue. However, this verdict, while perhaps aberrational, also likely signals a trend toward more liberal jury verdicts and perhaps also confirming that few jurisdictions are immune from potential “nuclear” verdicts.

For more information, please contact Doug Holthus and Ashley Hetzel or your local FMG attorney.