In November 2007, a jury in Seattle awarded $4.4 million to Melissa Sheffield in a discrimination lawsuit. Sheffield sued her former employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for retaliation after she complained of sexual orientation harassment, and she also claimed that Goodyear failed to reasonably accommodate a disability. Articles about the case can be read here, here, and here.
The jury award included $318,344 in lost pay and benefits, $40,622 in lost future wages and benefits, and a whopping $4,000,000 in emotional distress damages. The jury also awarded Sheffield nominal damages of $500 for a violation of the Washington statute that requires production of a personnel file. To my knowledge, that may be the first such verdict under the Washington personnel file law. The victory was short-lived for Ms. Sheffield and her lawyer, Seattle attorney Daniel F. Johnson (who, in addition to being a talented trial lawyer, is a fellow alumnus of my favorite college). The judge has set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial on damages.
According to the judge’s order, it was learned after the verdict that the presiding juror conducted his own independent research on Goodyear’s earnings and financial condition. Using Yahoo! Finance or Google Finance, the juror learned that Goodyear’s earnings were approximately $200 million. He presented this information to the other jurors for consideration of emotional distress damages. He apparently suggested to others whether 1%, or $2 million, of Goodyear’s earnings would be “significant.” Apparently it was not enough and the jury went with 2%. (The order does not say this but I am surmising.) Several jurors said that they did not hear this information, but the court decided that the extraneous information may have affected the outcome of the trial, especially in light of the $4 million emotional distress award. A new trial was ordered only on the issue of damages. The verdict on liability stands.
These developments must be crushing to Sheffield and her attorneys, but it certainly does not mean that Goodyear is off the hook. The judgment on liability stands, which means that the company eventually will pay Sheffield’s attorney’s fees, unless Goodyear can get the entire case thrown out by the court of appeals. Assuming the new trial order is upheld on appeal, the new trial will focus only on the issue of damages. With Sheffield’s attorney’s fees all but guaranteed, and going up by the minute at trial, will Goodyear gamble again on a large verdict or will they case settle on appeal? Only time will tell. Both Sheffield and Goodyear have appealed. Goodyear has appealed the judgment and the court’s order denying judgment as a matter of law. Sheffield has appealed the court’s order setting aside the damages verdict. It will be interesting to see what happens in this case.