Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2023 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2023 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

We’re thrilled to announce the finalists for the 2023 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award!

The TLOY Award celebrates and recognizes the accomplishments of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered grave injustice or abuse.

This year’s award will be presented at the organization’s 41st Annual Gala & Awards Presentation on Monday, July 17 at 6 pm ET in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This year’s finalists for Public Justice’s 2023 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include an incredible group of attorneys across the country, who took on landmark cases that address consumer safety and corporate misconduct, ensuring that companies can’t get away with putting profit over people, as well as holding accountable conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for the lies he spread in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

Below are the case profiles for the 2023 finalists:

Hill v. Ford Motor Co. 

In the largest verdict in Georgia history, a jury entered this verdict on behalf of two brothers whose parents were crushed by the roof of their Ford F250 “Super Duty” truck was crushed during a rollover crash. This case exposed Ford’s misconduct in selling more than five million “Super Duty” pickups with defective roofs that Ford knew were dangerously weak.  

On April 3, 2014, Voncile and Melvin Hill were killed when their 2002 Ford F250 rolled over and the roof crushed down on them. They left behind two children, Kim and Adam Hill.

The legal team filed the case on December 22, 2014, in the Cobb County State Court in Marietta, Georgia on behalf of the brothers, alleging that Ford knew about a design defect in the roof of the Ford “Super Duty” trucks, and that Ford failed to warn consumers or fix the problem.

The case was later refiled in the Gwinnett County State Court in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

There was a total of two trials, with the first beginning in March 2018, which resulted in a mistrial due to Ford’s trial misconduct. The trial court imposed sanctions on Ford in July 2018, finding that Ford had willfully and deliberately violated court orders in an attempt to procure a mistrial.  The trial court sanctioned Ford by deeming certain facts to be found in the plaintiffs’ favor as a matter of law. A second trial began in August 2022.

During the first trial, the legal team presented findings about Ford’s misconduct, revealing a disturbing trend, in which American consumers have been getting killed, or paralyzed, or otherwise severely injured because of roof-crush in those trucks since at least the year 2000.

Ford started selling the subject “Super Duty” trucks (F250s, F350s, F450s, & F550s) in fall 1998 as the model year 1999 trucks. Despite knowing of the trucks’ defective roofs, and despite being sued more than 200 times for roof crush deaths and injuries — Ford continued to sell the trucks through the 2016 model year. Additionally, the legal team found that in 1996, Ford executives ordered cost-cutting measures, which required that Ford employees remove metal from the roof, further weakening the roof strength. According to Ford’s own corporate representative, the cost containment measures used in the roof design alone saved Ford approximately $520 million — or $100 per truck.

In 2006, the United States Congress mandated that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) increase the federal minimum roof strength standard, which had been unchanged since 1971, and apply the law to large trucks such as Ford’s “Super Duty” trucks, which had previously been exempt from even the minimum standard.  Due to lobbying by Ford and GM, the large trucks had been exempted from even that minimal minimum standard, despite the fact that heavier trucks needed a stronger roof than lighter vehicles.

Knowing the Super Duty trucks could not pass the existing minimum standard, much less a stronger minimum standard, Ford assembled a team of engineers to design an all-new roof for the Super Duty trucks.  That program was called the “Enhanced Roof Strength Program for Super Duty trucks.”  In 16 months, those Ford engineers designed a new roof that was five times stronger. However, Ford executives chose not to use the new roof and even lobbied the NHTSA to delay application of the new federal minimum standard to larger trucks. Ford has never explained why it did not use the stronger roof.

During the first trial, plaintiffs had submitted evidence of 69 prior similar rollover wrecks with roof crushes where occupants were killed or injured.  In the four years since Ford caused the mistrial in 2018, more people were killed or injured in such wrecks, and at the second trial, plaintiffs submitted evidence of 10 more similar wrecks. During the trials, Ford declined to say how many more other similar incidents were known by the company.

To delay retrial after the first mistrial, Ford filed an appeal, which was dismissed by the Georgia Court of Appeals. Ford then petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court but was unanimously rejected.

On August 1, 2022, retrial began, and after just three weeks, on August 19, the jury returned a verdict, awarding $6 million for the full value of the life of Melvin Hill, $10 million for the full value of the life of Voncile Hill, $4.5 million for Melvin’s pain & suffering, $3.5 million for Voncile’s pain & suffering, and $1.7 billion in punitive damages. This was by far the largest verdict in Georgia history, eclipsing the previous highest verdict of $457 million – also a case in which James E. Butler, Jr. was lead counsel.

The significance of this verdict sends a message that companies will be held accountable for failing to address known safety defects in their products, ensuring that consumer safety is prioritized over company profit.

Hill v. Ford Motor Co. legal team: James E. Butler, Jr. and Daniel B. Philyaw of Butler Prather; Gerald Davidson, Jr. of Mahaffey Pickens & Tucker; Michael B. Terry of Bondurant Mixson & Elmore; and Laurie Ann Taylor.

Kamuda v. Sterigenics, et al.

In the largest verdict for a single plaintiff in Illinois history, a jury awarded $363 million to Sue Kamuda, a 70-year-old woman who sued medical device sterilization company Sterigenics for causing her cancer due to the company’s carcinogenic emissions. However, despite Sterigenics knowing that the chemicals it used were dangerous, it chose profit over the public safety and health of community members in the Willowbrook facility.

Sue Kamuda was an active, healthy 70-year-old woman when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She did not have any known risk factors or family history of breast cancer, but she did live near a Sterigenics plant in Willowbrook, Illinois.

The plant’s main purpose was sterilizing medical equipment. This process released known carcinogen ethylene oxide into the surrounding environment for decades, and Ms. Kamuda was the first of nearly 800 plaintiffs who also lived near the plant.

Ms. Kamuda filed her case in September 2018 in the Cook County Circuit Court, and it went to trial on August 18, 2022.

During the five-week trial, the legal team presented evidence that Sterigenics knew about the risks of emitting ethylene oxide into the environment yet continued to emit excessive and unnecessary amounts of the colorless, odorless carcinogen for decades without warning the community or using safer methods that were available. Thus, residents of Willowbrook had inadvertently inhaled the gas on a daily basis for decades. Ms. Kamuda and her husband had moved into their Willowbrook home in 1985, around the same time Sterigenics began setting up its facility in the very same community. Further, Ms. Kamuda was able to prove that Sterigenics and its parent companies invested to increase capacity at the Willowbrook facility, but did not bother investing in additional safety measures.

On September 19, 2022, the jury awarded $363 million to Ms. Kamuda. This included $38 million in compensatory and $325 million in punitive damages. It was the largest jury verdict awarded to a single plaintiff in Illinois history.

This suit is the first in more than 700 lawsuits against the company, paving the way for a $408 million settlement agreement between Sterigenics’ parent company Sotera Health and nearly 870 remaining plaintiffs in January 2023.

The trial also marks the first step in setting a precedent that Sterigenics cannot distort science with money and that companies like Sterigenics will be held accountable for putting profits above public safety.

Mr. Salvi, Mr. Northcutt and Ms. Cascio were assisted at trial by Shawn Collins of the Collins Law Firm, Scott Entin and Deanna Pihos of Miner Barnhill Galland.

Kamuda v. Sterigenics, et al. legal team: Patrick A. Salvi II, Jennifer M. Cascio, and Lance D. Northcutt of Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard PC.

The Cases Against Alex Jones and his Companies: Neil Heslin & Scarlet Lewis v. Alex Jones, et al.; Leonard Pozner & Veronique De La Rosa, v. Alex Jones, et al. ; Lafferty, et al. v. Alex Jones, et al.

For more than a decade, internet “newsman” and e-commerce mogul Alex Jones led an assault on families who lost someone in the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting – especially those families who grieved or spoke in any public forum. Jones attacked these families by spreading lies to his millions of followers that the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax, and that families were actors perpetrating a massive fraud on the American public.

In parallel efforts to hold Jones accountable, the Farrar & Ball team in Texas brought suit against Jones on behalf of the parents of two murdered first-graders, and the Koskoff team in Connecticut brought suit against Jones on behalf of seven families and one first responder.

Neil Heslin & Scarlet Lewis v. Alex Jones, et al.; Leonard Pozner & Veronique De La Rosa, v. Alex Jones, et al.

The first defamation cases against Jones and his company InfoWars were brought in Texas in the Spring of 2018 by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of victim Jesse Lewis, and Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, parents of victim Noah Pozner.

Following multiple appeals, refusal by the defendants to comply with either rules or court orders, over a million dollars in sanctions awards, and even a fraudulent last-minute bankruptcy filing – which delayed the proceedings for another four months – the Heslin/Lewis case was set as the first trial against Jones after four years of litigation.

The jury delivered a verdict on August 4, 2022, awarding Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis a total of $49.3 million, including punitive damages for the suffering Jones put them through. This case marks the first time Jones has been held financially liable for the lies he spread about the massacre.

Lafferty, et al. v. Alex Jones, et al.

In Lafferty, et al. v. Alex Jones, et al., fourteen family members and one first responder, sued Jones in the fall of 2018, asserting claims of defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and a claim violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act targeting Jones’ lie-based marketing scheme.

For five years, Jones resisted discovery, just as he had done in Texas. He refused to produce information, doctored documents, bullied witnesses, and at one point went on air and asked his audience for the head of plaintiffs’ counsel Chris Mattei “on a pike.” Even after the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the resulting sanction, Jones continued his relentless abuse of the judicial process. A default was entered and a two-month trial followed.

Although Jones had withheld extensive vital information, the trial team was able to show how Jones’ false claims about Sandy Hook drew increased traffic to Infowars.com, spiking sales in Jones’ e-commerce business, and establishing for the jury how Jones’ profit-motives drove his lies about the families. The trial team was also able to use Jones’ own social media and other data to show that his lies had a minimum reach of 550,000,000 impressions.

Each of the fifteen plaintiffs testified, acts of tremendous courage as Jones continued targetting the plaintiffs – and the trial judge – during trial.

The jury awarded the plaintiffs a historic $965 million in compensatory damages and the trial court then added punitive damages, bringing the total damages assessed to $1.4 billion, the largest verdict in Connecticut history and the largest defamation verdict in United States history. This verdict sent a message to Jones and his followers that there are real, financial consequences for using public platforms to target vulnerable people and promote tragedies for profit.

After the Lafferty trial, Jones still faced an additional trial in Texas involving parents Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, as well as a trial involving Marcel Fontane, a young man falsely identified by InfoWars as the 2018 Parkland High School shooter. Unable to continue, Jones and InfoWars both declared bankruptcy in late 2022, where a federal judge will oversee the process by which Jones is finally held accountable to these families.

No result in court can undo the harm Jones has done.

The results in these cases are a testament to the generosity and bravery of these families, who, even after all they had lost, were willing to face terrifying and powerful opponents to protect other families from what they had suffered.

Neil Heslin & Scarlet Lewis v. Alex Jones, et al.; Leonard Pozner & Veronique De La Rosa, v. Alex Jones, et al. legal team: Kyle Farrar, Wes Ball, Mark Bankston, and Bill Ogden of Farrar & Ball, LLP

Lafferty, et al. v. Alex Jones, et al. legal team: Christopher M. Mattei, Joshua D. Koskoff, Alinor C. Sterling, Matt Blumenthal, Sarah Steinfeld, Colin Antaya, and Lorena Thompson of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, PC.

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