Family hopes $150B civil award prompts charges

Associated Press Modified: December 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm •  Published: December 21, 2011
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HOUSTON (AP) — An attorney who persuaded a Texas jury to award one of the largest civil verdicts ever says he and his clients don't expect to collect any of the $150 billion judgment, but they hope it helps persuade prosecutors to seek charges against a man they say doused a boy with gasoline and set him on fire.

Robbie Middleton survived his horrific injuries for 12 years before dying last year of a rare form of skin cancer, which attorneys argued was related to the extensive burns he suffered on his eighth birthday. Lawyer Craig Sico and Middleton's family said they now hope for a renewed investigation of Don Wilburn Collins, who Middleton accused of setting him on fire.

Collins never faced criminal charges in Middleton's case, in part, prosecutors said, because of inconsistencies in the evidence and difficulty obtaining information from such a young victim. Now 26, Collins is in prison for an unrelated sexual assault conviction against another 8-year-old boy and for failing to register as a sex offender. He is to be released next year.

He did not appear in court during the civil trial and no attorney appeared on his behalf.

Sico said he asked jurors to make a statement in the case by topping the biggest civil verdict he was aware of — a $145 billion judgment handed down against the tobacco companies in Florida in 2000.

"We said, 'If you want your message to be heard, it needs to be significant and that's how people hear about these things. And we leave it to you.' We made no request," Sico said.

The Fayette County jury returned the $150 billion verdict Tuesday after a two-day trial.

The Florida tobacco verdict of $145 billion, which was later overturned, had stood as the largest U.S. civil jury verdict, said John T. Nockleby, professor and director of the civil justice program at the Loyola Marymount University School of Law in Los Angeles.

"It's the kind of award that has no meaning outside of an expression of moral outrage," he said. "They could have awarded a trillion dollars, and it would have made no difference."

Middleton's mother, Colleen Middleton, said Wednesday the family hadn't really thought about the size of the judgment.

"We're never going to see any money," she said. "What we thought was please let these people realize Robert was precious, like everybody else's child, and he didn't deserve this."