The Alabama Supreme Court this month delivered the highest award in punitive damages to a plaintiff in state history: $10 million for wrongful death.
A 54% increase from the previous $6.5 million high watermark awarded in a 2021 case signals a progressive escalation in punitive damage awards affirmed by the state Supreme Court.
While all justices agreed as to the liability of Springhill, only three justices expressed their exception to the punitive payout. The majority opinion, written by Justice Brad Mendheim, upheld and affirmed the trial court’s judgment and $10 million verdict.
Chief Justice Tom Parker and Associate Justices Greg Shaw, Kelli Wise, Sarah Stewart, Tommy Bryan concurred; Associate Justices Will Sellers, Jay Mitchell and Greg Cook dissented specifically to damages.
In his dissent, Cook had strong reservations about the magnitude of the punitive damages.
“The facts are tragic and the evidence is overwhelming,” he wrote. “However, I respectfully dissent as to the affirmance of the award of punitive damages in the amount of $10 million.”
Cook warned it only took the court two years to nearly double the award for damages set in Bednarski vs. Johnson, which marked a 60% increase over the previous record.
“In other words, in less than two years, we will have moved the highest medical malpractice award ever upheld by this Court from $4 million to $10 million — an increase of a total of 150%,” Cook wrote.
In decades past, the Alabama was dubbed “tort hell” during an era of litigation and tort liability recognized as hostile to business and industry, particularly in comparison to other states.
Records show in 2022, the trial lawyer political action committee, Progress for Justice, donated $564,500 to Debra Jones, an Alabama circuit judge in Anniston.
Jones was ultimately defeated by Cook, then a Birmingham attorney. Cook raised more than $350,000 from two business PACs – $175,000 from the Alabama Realtors Political Action Committee and $175,000 from the BCA’s Progress PAC.
In 2018, AAFJ donated $560,000 to Parker, who defeated then-Chief Justice Lyn Stuart.
Mendheim, who wrote the majority opinion Springhill vs. West, was defeated in 2018 by Mobile Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart, but received an appointment to the Supreme Court by Gov. Kay Ivey after Parker was elevated to chief justice after defeating Stuart.
Mendheim has received donations from mainly business groups, including more than $70,000 from Progress PAC in 2018.
The verdict in Springhill vs. West is emblematic of a broader trend in Alabama’s judicial system. The exponential rise in damages is alarming to some.
Cook, Mitchell and Sellers’ dissent articulated the apprehension that Alabama may once again be seen as a litigation-heavy state to the detriment of its overall business climate.
Grayson Everett is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @Grayson270