The state Supreme Court on Friday overturned a lower court ruling that threw out a $94 million award to the families of three ironworkers killed in the 1999 Big Blue crane collapse at Miller Park, but significant legal issues remain before the case can be settled.
That was the net effect of the high court’s action in a case watched closely by business groups, concerned about multimillion-dollar jury awards, and lawyers and labor unions, who say workers and their families have a right to seek large damage awards when people are killed or injured.
The case now heads to the state Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel will consider a list of legal issues left to be decided.
Robert Habush, the lead lawyer in the high-profile case, was elated by Friday’s decision, which for now reinstates the $94 million punitive damage award. “But it’s not just me. When I called the widows today, they sobbed. I was taken aback. It’s been a raw wound for them,” he said.
Ralph Webber, the attorney for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of America, the main defendant in the case, said there were a number of legal issues left to be argued and decided, including whether the $94 million award was excessive.
“The Supreme Court recognized this, and that’s why the court sent the other issues back to the Appeals Court for review,” he said.
Habush said it was possible the case could take two to four more years to settle. Other attorneys in the case said the possibility exists that the Appeals Court could order a new trial.
The tragedy that spawned the court battle occurred on July 14, 1999. In the accident, the 45-story-high Big Blue crane was lifting a 450-ton roof piece when the piece started swaying in the wind and the crane collapsed. Nearby, three ironworkers were suspended 200 feet in the air in a man-basket that was hoisted by another crane.
Falling debris collided with the ironworkers’ man-basket, sending the men to their deaths.
Killed in the accident were Jeffrey A. Wischer, William R. DeGrave and Jerome W. Starr.
Widows of the ironworkers sued Mitsubishi. In December 2000, a Milwaukee County jury returned a verdict and attributed 97% of the liability to Mitsubishi and 3% to Lampson International, which leased the giant crane. The jury ultimately awarded $5.25 million in compensatory damages and $94 million in punitive damages.
Under a partial settlement, the families have already been paid a total of $27 million. In a statement, Mitsubishi said the company and its employees “remain saddened by the deaths of the three workers and the resulting loss for their families. This was a tragic accident – nothing less but nothing more.”
In its 5-1 decision, the state high court said the Appeals Court in Milwaukee erred when it ruled that the Legislature had intended to limit punitive-damage awards when a defendant acted with malice or intent to harm.
Instead, the Supreme Court crafted its own interpretation of the state’s punitive-damage law, which was enacted in 1995. In the court’s opinion, state law “requires a plaintiff to show that a defendant acted maliciously toward the plaintiff or intentionally disregarded the rights of the plaintiff, not that a defendant intended to cause harm or injury to the plaintiff.”
Moreover, intentional disregard, as the court defined it, “necessitates that the defendant act with a purpose to disregard the plaintiff’s rights or be aware that his other conduct is substantially certain to result in the plaintiff’s rights being disregarded.”
James Buchen, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, called the court’s new standard disappointing. He said the 1995 law was meant to require a showing of intent to do harm.
“The court moved away from that approach, and it’s a little unclear,” Buchen said.
He said WMC would ask the Legislature to change the law to restore “intent” in the law.
In its decision, the court said there was sufficient evidence to submit a punitive-damages award to the Milwaukee County jury that originally heard the case. “Anyone who has hung laundry, set up an outdoor art display, or driven a motor vehicle on a high bridge knows the havoc wind can play with items light or heavy,” Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote in the majority opinion.
“The jury could have believed that the crane collapsed, as the plaintiffs claimed, because it was used in high winds, no wind-speed calculations were made, and the crane’s load chart limitations were exceeded; without wind calculations the 45-stories high crane was lifting a billboard-size load of nearly one million pounds on a windy afternoon,” Abrahamson wrote.
Tags: Big Blue