Irelsie Alvarez said she and fellow jurors wanted to send JPMorgan Chase & Co. a message with their startling $8 billion verdict in a Dallas probate case — an award that’s destined to be reduced to no more than $90 million.
She concluded at the close of the trial in September that the bank mismanaged the estate of deceased American Airlines executive Max Hopper, who died in 2010 with assets of more than $19 million. Alvarez said she took the suggestion of lawyers for Hopper’s family that a big damage award was needed “in order to prevent this from happening again.”
“It was to call attention to it, to send them a message,” Alvarez, a 26-year-old insurance agent, said in an interview. “Chase promised so many things and they didn’t keep those promises.”
The jury award — the largest of 2017 and the ninth-largest in U.S. history — is set to be revisited Thursday by the judge in the case after Hopper’s family members conceded that it’s legally indefensible.
His adult children had asked Dallas County Probate Judge Brenda Thompson last fall to award them about $74 million, down from the $6 billion in punitive damages the jury issued against the bank for Stephen Hopper and Laura Wassmer and their father’s estate. In a court filing Wednesday, their lawyer said the bank agreed to a confidential settlement. The attorney and a representative of JPMorgan declined to comment ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
The widow, Jo Hopper, who wasn’t part of that settlement, asked the court to lower her award to $14.4 million, from $2 billion.
JPMorgan was seeking to reverse the entire judgment, saying it acted in good faith on the Hopper estate and “stole nothing.”
Before the settlement with the children was announced, the New York-based bank said in an April 2 filing that the damages requests were “still grossly excessive and legally unsustainable.”
“The actual damages Jo and the heirs claim and the jury awarded consisted almost entirely of legal fees incurred by them or paid by the estate in connection with disputes they had with each other,” JPMorgan said.
Hopper, who pioneered a reservation system for the airline, died unexpectedly without a will, according to court records.
JPMorgan was hired to administer the estate and the bank should have divided the assets and released them to Jo Hopper and her stepchildren, according to the lawsuit. Instead, her lawyers said in a statement, “the bank took years to release basic interests in art, home furnishings, jewelry, and notably, Mr. Hopper’s collection of 6,700 golf putters and 900 bottles of wine.”
The plaintiffs alleged that bank representatives failed to meet financial deadlines for assets under their control, stock options were allowed to expire, and Mrs. Hopper’s wishes to sell stock were ignored.
Stephen Hopper and Laura Wassmer also claimed that the bank cut them out of decisions and kept them uninformed in order to curry favor with their stepmother.
Jo Hopper initially sued the bank, alleging breach of fiduciary duty. JPMorgan paid legal fees to defend this out of the estate account, depleting it by more than $3 million, the plaintiffs said in court filings.
Alvarez, the juror, said she isn’t concerned that the plaintiffs are now asking for much less than the $8 billion award. “I’m sure they’re trying to be fair,” she said.
The case is Hopper v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, PR-11-3238-1, Probate Court, Dallas County, Texas.
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