Jury awards record $150 billion to family of burned boy
A Texas jury has awarded a record $150 billion in punitive damages to the parents and estate of Robert Ray "Robbie" Middleton, who was set on fire when he was 8 years old -- two weeks after he was allegedly sexually assaulted by the same person.
The largely symbolic award is reportedly the biggest personal-injury award from a jury in U.S. history. The previous record, according to Bloomberg News, was a $145-billion award -- later reversed -- in a Florida class-action suit against the tobacco industry.
Colleen and Bobby Ray Middleton filed the civil lawsuit against their son’s alleged attacker, Don Willburn Collins, 26, who is in prison for an unrelated crime. But their real target is prosecutors in Houston’s Montgomery County, who they hope will feel so pressured by the award that they finally charge Collins in connection with the alleged sexual assault and subsequent attack.
A jury in La Grange, Texas, about 100 miles west of Houston, on Tuesday found in the Middletons' favor, ordering Collins to pay them $370 million in actual damages, according to their attorney, Craig Sico, who spoke with The Times. The jury was able to address damages after a district judge issued a partial summary judgment on liability in September.
Middleton was sexually assaulted June 14, 1998, and was set on fire on his birthday two weeks later, Sico said.
In the second attack, Middleton had just received a tent as a birthday gift and was walking to a friend's house to try it out. His assailant caught up with him in woods near his family's home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston, Sico said. The attacker threw a cup of gasoline in Middleton's face, tied him to a tree with fishing line, poured more gasoline on him and set him on fire, Sico said.
As the plastic fishing line melted, Middleton was able to escape, and neighbors found him collapsed at the edge of the woods, Sico said.
Collins, then 13, was detained in connection with the assault, but was later released, officials said.
“They tried to sweep this under the carpet,” Sico said.
Middleton was covered with third-degree burns and had to receive numerous skin treatments, Sico said. He later developed skin cancer and, on April 29, he died at age 20.
Sico, a partner at a Corpus Christi law firm, took the case pro bono. He told the jury that the award should be symbolic, bigger than the largest civil settlement he could find on record: the $145 billion Florida class-action tobacco settlement in 2000.
He told them the award was intended to send a message to the Montgomery County attorney to charge Collins in connection with the assaults on Middleton.
“This is a plea for justice,” Sico said of the jury award.
Collins, 26, did not appear at the civil trial. He was convicted in 2001 of assaulting another 8-year-old and is a registered sex offender. He is due to be released from prison in September 2012, officials said.
Montgomery County Atty. David Walker, whose office handles juvenile cases, was not county attorney at the time of Middleton’s assault but was working at the office.
He told The Times that Collins was not charged at the time because “the case was very, very difficult, with evidence that was not clear or necessarily compelling at that time.”
Walker said investigators recovered scant physical evidence from the assaults. And because Middleton was severely injured, he added, “his ability to say what had happened and who did this horrible crime to him was extremely difficult.”
“There will be people who will say that’s an excuse,” Walker said, “but the professionals here worked very hard.”
Walker said he and Montgomery County sheriff’s investigators reopened the investigation earlier this year after Sico began gathering documents for the civil case.
Walker said investigators are “still working on the case, still tracking down and attempting to interview witnesses.”
“Depending upon the results of that further investigation, authorities here will make a decision about whether prosecution of Mr. Collins or anyone else is possible,” Walker said.
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston