Most of us are familiar with the examples of the civil justice system gone awry — the woman who was awarded millions for spilling hot coffee on her lap; drunk drivers who sue because they get hurt when they crash their vehicles; and criminals who file suit when they get hurt committing their crimes.
Jurors’ common sense, it seems, often takes a holiday when it comes to deciding the merits of a civil case.
So it’s only appropriate that we praise a jury when it rejects digging into a company’s deep pockets out of misplaced sympathy for the “little guy.” That happened last week when a Texas jury found that Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. was not responsible for the deaths of six people who died during the controlled burning of a sugar cane field west of Raymondville in 2003.
Relatives of three of the six who died filed a $20 million lawsuit against the sugar growers’ co-operative. The six people were undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala who were hiding among the tall sugar cane stalks when the field was set afire to prepare it for harvest.
While the deaths were a tragic occurrence, the jury made the right decision when it determined the sugar growers were not responsible for the deaths.
Attorneys for the families claimed that the method used in the harvest — in which all four sides of the field were set on fire at the same time — was flawed because it allowed no route for escape. But testimony at the trial revealed the growers had posted warnings about their plans to set the field ablaze and had issued verbal warnings prior to the fire.
The six who died made the choice to enter this country illegally, and then made another choice to hide in the field — to trespass on property that belonged to others. While the resulting deaths were a terrible misfortune and certainly not on a par with their apparent crimes of immigrating without documentation and trespassing, it would have been utterly unreasonable for the jury to have held the sugar growers accountable for people who had no business being in the field.
The jury’s decision represents a triumph for personal responsibility, a concept whose popularity has suffered over the years. It also gives hope that juries in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere will no longer be viewed as a slam dunk for civil lawsuit plaintiffs.