Chicago Tribune: Judge’s error shows value of mathematics

Chicago News

Judge Thad Balkman has had several brushes with fame. When he was 14 years old, filmmakers shooting “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” used the Balkman family’s house in Long Beach, California, as Ferris’ suburban Chicago home. In high school, Balkman was elected president of a senior class that included entertainer Snoop Dogg. And after law school in Oklahoma, Balkman had a distinguished run in that state’s legislature.

Unfortunately, though, the judge’s latest moment of notoriety is much different — a humiliation borne of his humanity. All of us make mistakes, although usually not in legal judgments against a consumer products Goliath such as Johnson & Johnson. On Nov. 15, Balkman had to admit that his decimal place error had created a $107 million mistake in an opioid case verdict that had been big news from coast to coast.

Last summer Balkman heard the first case to go to trial among thousands of cases nationwide claiming that drug companies and distributors marketed opioids too vigorously, and thus are liable for provoking a deadly epidemic of overdoses. In August he ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in an opioid crisis that, Oklahoma’s attorney general contended, had killed 4,653 people in that state from 2007 to 2017. Balkman’s verdict received extensive media coverage: It’s expected to shape settlement negotiations over more than 2,000 similar lawsuits filed by local, state and tribal governments. Many of those cases now are consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

Johnson & Johnson lawyers then noticed that Balkman evidently hadn’t done what his math teachers surely had taught him to do: When solving a problem, first estimate your answer. Then do the math — twice. No, don’t blindly trust the calculator (or your dexterity in using it). Check your work. And never forget, there are devils in the decimals.

In his August order, Balkman had included in the $572 million his calculation that it would cost Oklahoma birthing hospitals $107,683,000 for training to treat infants born dependent on opioids.

Except the judge had made a three-place decimal error. The true cost is $107,683.

Balkman admitted his error in October and, on Friday, lowered the $572 million judgment to $465 million.

Judge Balkman, we write about this with empathy. We admire your forthright admission of error, and applaud your good humor in declaring, “That will be the last time I use that calculator.”

More important than our applause, you now are a prospective lesson plan celebrity to America’s 3.2 million math teachers. Students routinely complain to them that “I’ll never use math in real life” or “This calculator knows all the math I’ll ever need.” The teachers now can retort with the saga of a judge, his verdict and his imaginary $107 million.

Real life does demand math skills, daily. Judge Balkman, your decimal debacle gives the rest of us 107 million reasons to thank the teachers who drive home that truth.

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