Sending a message

2000 was a good year to be a trial lawyer. Across the country, juries turned in record-shattering verdicts, punishing corporations and further fueling Big Business' "tort reform" efforts. Not counting class-action lawsuits -- including the $145 billion win scored against the tobacco industry last July in Miami -- at least 11 personal-injury lawsuits topped out over the $100 million mark.

Juries, the experts say, are becoming activists, using big numbers to send messages about key issues such as corporate theft -- and that's where Disney comes in. On a top-10 list compiled by Lawyers Weekly USA, the $240 million local verdict last year against the Mouse for stealing the idea for its Wide World of Sports complex ranked seventh.

The plaintiffs, Edward Russell and Nicholas Stracick, submitted a business plan and three-dimensional models of "Sports Island" to Disney in 1986, and over the next year or so met dozens of times with Mouse officials to hammer out the details. Then, in 1989, Disney told the pair it had no interest in their idea.

In 1993, construction began on Disney's Wide World of Sports, which, of course, bore a remarkable similarity to Russell and Stracick's Island. Disney argued first that its complex wasn't a rip-off, then that the complex didn't make that much money anyway -- arguments that jurors rejected. Disney is appealing.

Incidentally, topping this year's top-10 was the $475 million award given to Anna Nicole Smith in her fight with her late husband's family.

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