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In Case You Hadn’t Heard… Millions, Billions and Trillions!

by Keith Hock

In the first Austin Powers movie (hard to believe that it was released 16 years ago), Dr. Evil hatches a plan to use a stolen nuclear weapon to hold the world for ransom.  Since he has been cryogenically frozen (only in the movies) for 30 years, Dr. Evil’s proposed ransom demand is less than intimidating:

Dr. Evil: Here’s the plan.  We get the [nuclear] warhead and we hold the world ransom for…ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

Number Two: Don’t you think we should ask for more than a million dollars?  A million dollars isn’t exactly a lot of money these days.

[pause]

Dr. Evil: Okay then, we hold the world ransom for…One…Hundred…BILLION DOLLARS!

Even $100 billion dollars seems like an insignificant amount of money in the days of trillion dollar federal deficits and more than $16 trillion in federal debt (for a mind-boggling array of “real-time” fiscal statistics, see this scorecard).  It is easy to lose track of all of the “zeros” involved in numbers this big.

This past year, we have seen U.S. Federal Court juries award both Apple, Inc. and Carnegie Mellon University more than $1 billion (yes, with a “B”) in damages of patent infringement matters.  According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2012 Patent Litigation Study, these two awards are the 3rd and 4th largest patent damage awards, respectfully, (before appeals and/or subsequent settlement) since 1995.

As a damages expert, I am used to dealing with numbers representing enormous sums of money, but even I can lose perspective when talking about numbers in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.  I would imagine that jurors have at least an equally difficult time comprehending the magnitude of their decisions when there are such significant sums of money at stake.

Even trying to put these types of numbers into context makes them almost surreal.  For example, the Apple article linked above states, “Samsung has to be sorely disappointed, but it has enough cash to handle the $1 billion ruling with relative ease: It earned $12 billion last year and has $14 billion in cash in the bank.”  If a $1 billion verdict can be handled with “relative ease,” it appears that, like Dr. Evil, we are all living in a time when, “a million dollars isn’t exactly a lot of money”…

What do you think – is it harder for a jury to award damages if there are hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars at stake?  How might you present (or defend against) such large damage claims at trial?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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