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5 of the Biggest Civil Judgments of All Time

Do you remember the 1994 McDonald’s lawsuit involving a cup of coffee? The lawsuit gained notoriety around the world as an example of excessive civil litigation. Even though a court awarded the plaintiff $2.86 million, she ultimately received $640,000. Meanwhile, the case became the flash point of a debate over tort reform, a debate that still rages today.

The tort reform debate continues because courts are known to award some pretty impressive amounts that often seem excessive. How excessive? Just check out the awards described below. They represent some of the biggest of all time.

1. 1998 Tobacco Settlement

Back in the 90s, 46 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories got together and sued the tobacco industry on grounds that cigarette manufacturers were willingly making an addictive product despite knowing its deadly nature. They won.

When the dust settled, the world’s four largest tobacco companies were forced to pay some $10 billion annually to ostensibly cover the costs states and territories would incur treating cancer patients. Twenty-three years later, those payments are still being made. Tobacco companies have already paid hundreds of billions.

2. 2014 Bank of America Settlement

The 2008 housing crash led to a slew of civil lawsuits against banking institutions. One such institution was Bank of America, which was accused of selling risky mortgage derivatives. The lawsuit contended that such derivatives were partly responsible for the crash. Bank of America eventually settled with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, admitting culpability and agreeing to a $9.3 billion judgment.

Unfortunately, the settlement wasn’t the end of Bank of America’s troubles. A subsequent lawsuit settled a few months later added an additional $16.6 billion to the bank’s bill.

3. 2010 BP Oil Spill

You might remember the BP oil spill that took place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The tragic event killed eleven people and did considerable environmental damage that took the Gulf Coast years to recover from. Obviously, BP was sued by multiple parties. They eventually settled with Louisiana and four other states in agreeing to pay $18.7 billion. That settlement ostensibly ended all of the civil lawsuits pertaining to the spill.

4. 2013 Murdoch Divorce Settlement

Not all sizable judgments are the result of lawsuits against big corporations. Sometimes, even personal matters can result in significant judgments. One such case is the 2013 divorce settlement between the late Rupert Murdoch and his second wife, Anna. After more than three decades of marriage, the two split. Anna was awarded $1.7 billion.

The Murdoch case represents one that would have gone to a judgment collection agency had Murdoch refused to pay up. Salt Lake City Utah’s Judgment Collectors says that these types of cases going to collection are rare, but it happens from time to time.

5. 2009 Pfizer Settlement

Judgment Collectors also says that sometimes settlements are the result of a combination of civil and criminal actions. One such case is the 2009 Pfizer settlement regarding a number of prescription drugs, primarily a painkiller known as Bextra. That case revolved around allegations that Pfizer broke the law in marketing the drugs in question.

Settling for $2.3 billion in penalties allowed Pfizer to put the case behind them without facing any additional criminal charges. Critics argued that the penalty wasn’t high enough, given that Pfizer revenues could cover it in a matter of weeks.

Current tort law allows for incredibly sizable judgments when circumstances warrant. Very few judgments are worth tens of billions, but winning millions isn’t a bad option. No wonder tort attorneys don’t want anything to change.

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