Mobile Register

In case against Hobart Corp. similar to one local law firm previously won in Mobile, jury awards $20.5 million

A small town Illinois jury socked equipment manufacturer Hobart Corp. with an Alabama-sized $20.5 million verdict last week after listening to 11 days of testimony steered by two Mobile lawyers.

"Your attorneys were certainly very sharp, and Southern gentlemen from the word 'go'", said Grundy County Circuit Court Clerk Rose Bell. She was referring to lawyers Joseph S. "Buddy" Brown and Reggie Copeland Jr., who is the son of Mobile City Councilman Reggie Copeland.

The lawyers, who are with the Mobile firm of Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown, requested that the jurors do something that Mrs. Bell said no Grundy County jury had ever been asked to do: Render punitive damages in a civil lawsuit.

Their client, Morris, Ill., meat-cutter Richard Kopczick, had sued Hobart Corp. of Ohio, claiming he lost a finger because of defects in a meat saw the company manufactured.

The jury awarded Kopczick $553,644 in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.

Asked whether she thought the lawyers southern accents played well with the jury Mrs. Bell answered: "I certainly do".

In 1994, Brown won a $23.4 million award against Hobart Corp. in a case tried in Mobile County. He said the Illinois verdict proves that Alabama juries aren't alone in their willingness to punish what he called "remarkable acts of wrongdoing" by corporations.

"We've heard about tort hell being in Alabama", Brown said, "but I think what we just proved is that tort hell is wherever you find Satan."

A tort is a wrongful action resulting in injury that can come from the basis of a lawsuit in which a plaintiff seeks a monetary award. The national media have labeled Alabama as 'tort hell' because of large damage awards rendered by the state's juries, including those in Mobile County.

Grundy County is a conservative enclave of about 61,000 people about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, Mrs. Bell said. No Grundy County jury had heard a product-liability case or been asked to award punitive damages until the Kopczick case, she said.

Brown said the Illinois case was "virtually identical" to the lawsuit brought by Delchamps butcher Charles Bowman before a Mobile County Circuit Court jury in 1994. The $23.4 million award in that case was reduced by a confidential settlement, Brown said.

Hobart makes commercial food equipment for restaurants and supermarkets. The "defendant" meat saw in the Bowman and Kopczick cases was the Hobart 5700 slant saw.

In both the Bowman and Kopczick lawsuits, the plaintiffs alleged that the slant saw occasionally and unpredictably would jerk meat and pull it into the blade. The jerking action occurs so quickly and forcefully that it can yank a butcher's hand into the path of the blade, the plaintiffs alleged.

In the Illinois case, Brown cited some 30 instances in which it was claimed that this happened, and said the plaintiffs had knowledge of an additional 90 cases that the judge refused to let them introduce to the jury.

Brown said he's dedicated to making sure that the company stops selling the slant saw and removes the 6,000 such saws now being used in grocery stores and markets throughout the country.

As in the Mobile case, Hobart was defended by Stuart Ellers of Cleveland, Ohio firm of Thompson, Hine, & Flory.

In the Illinois case, Eilers argued that Kopczick had cut more than 1 million pieces of meat with the same saw prior to his 1993 injury, and that the grocery store where Kopczick worked continued to use the slant saw for two years after his injury.

"The defense did a fantastic job too" said Mrs. Bell. "At the end, the judge told jurors that they'd had the opportunity to hear two of the best law firms in the United States present their cases."

Mrs. Bell expects the case to be appealed.

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