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January 08, 2001 09:02am
Pinup got biggest U.S. court award of 2000 - paper
Source: Reuters

(BOSTON, MA) -- A former Playboy magazine pinup and a reporter held hostage in Beirut led a group of 10 U.S. plaintiffs whom juries awarded more than $100 million each last year, Lawyers Weekly USA reported on Monday.

Former Playboy pinup and Guess Jeans model Anna Nicole Smith, 32, topped the list, winning a judgment of $475 million in her battle over the estate of her late husband, Texas oil tycoon Howard Marshall.

Smith aside, the verdicts are a barometer of what angers society, according to Tom Harrison, the newspaper's publisher.

A decade ago, the verdict list consisted mostly of product liability awards. In contrast, courts and juries in 2000 awarded spectacular sums to victims of terrorists, of child molesters and of drug dealers.

Many big awards are reduced on appeal, Harrison acknowledged. He also noted that some of the cases in the top-10 list were subsequently settled for confidential amounts.

``Juries aren't just compensating people,'' he said. ``They are stepping in and trying to solve social problems. ... There's a whole trend towards regulation by litigation.''

The parents of a 10-year-old boy in Massachusetts won $328 million against the two men who raped and murdered their son. Since the killers had no assets, the verdict was uncollectable.

DISNEY SUED OVER SPORTS COMPLEX

A jury awarded two men represented by attorney Johnnie Cochran $240 million after they sued Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS - news) for stealing their idea to build a sports complex in Florida.

Harrison, whose Boston-based legal publication has been tracking verdict awards since 1989, said the pendulum was beginning to swing back in favor of defendants.

``One lesson from this top-10 list is that huge verdicts may be turning a corner,'' Harrison said. ``Jurors may be saying GM was the high point.''

In 1999, a jury lodged a $4.9 billion judgment against General Motors Corp. (NYSE:GM - news) for the defective design of a Chevrolet Malibu gas tank. The award was later cut to $1.2 billion and is being appealed by the car company.

Former Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson won the second-largest award of 2000. Iran was ordered to pay him more than $341 million for his seven years of captivity in Beirut.

The award initially appeared to be uncollectable, but Anderson's lawyer and others lobbied Congress to pass laws that would allow victims of Iranian terrorism to collect their compensatory damages from the country's assets frozen in the United States.

In Smith's case, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Samuel Bufford affirmed in Los Angeles last month his earlier decision to award her $475 million from Marshall's estate. The oil man, who was 89 and used a wheelchair, married Smith in 1994 after meeting her at a Houston club where she was a stripper. He died 14 months later.

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