“Nuclear verdicts” are putting a strain on corporations and their insurers, an insurance executive writes in this month’s Best’s Review. Paul Horgan, head of U.S. national accounts for Zurich, says the insurance industry is acting to address this trend but can’t do it alone.

The phrase refers to “exceptionally high” jury awards that, Horgan says, “exceed what most would consider reasonable.” He adds that such verdicts are becoming more common “and are being driven, in part, by aggressive and effective plaintiff’s attorneys.”

Commercial trucking is one of the most industries most heavily affected by nuclear verdicts. When considering verdicts of more than $1 million, the average size of awards related to trucking incidents increased nearly 1,000 percent from 2010 to 2018, according to a study by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI).  

One piece of the picture

Nuclear verdicts are just one part of a larger trend that includes increases in class action suits and “litigation funding,” in which third-party investors assume all or part of the cost of a lawsuit in exchange for an agreed-upon percentage of the settlement. According to Bloomberg, hedge funds, private-equity, and sovereign wealth funds “are piling billions into the outcome of high stakes court cases at a faster rate than ever before,” turning litigation funding into a $39 billion global industry in 2019.

These and other aspects of runaway litigation are considered major contributors to “social inflation” – a common term for claims and losses rising faster than general inflation and leading to more expensive insurance for businesses and consumers.

“Just a few years ago,” Horgan writes, “the top verdicts in the United States were measured in the millions of dollars…. Today, it’s in the billions.” He adds that the median settlement of the top 50 U.S. verdicts rose from $28 million in 2014 to $58 million in 2018.

“Without a strong defense,” Horgan writes, “nuclear verdicts will become the norm, and the fallout will be devastating.”

Defense counsel have begun employing some of the same techniques as plaintiffs’ attorneys, according to Horgan, but more is needed to address runaway litigation. He says it’s “critical for corporations to exert pressure on their state and federal legislators to put an end to this.”

Learn More at JIF

At Triple-I’s Joint Industry Forum in New York City this week, a panel is being dedicated to the topic of runaway litigation, its impact on claims and losses, and what can be done about it. Moderated by Frank Tomasello, executive director of The Institutes Griffith Insurance Education Foundation, the panel features the following participants:

There’s still time to register by December 1, 2021 (11:59 p.m.).