New Jersey’s Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that allows judges to reduce jury verdicts based upon their “feel of the case.” He v. Miller, A-81-09. On its face, this is in stark contrast to the “shocks the conscience” standard we usually see applied when a defendant moves for reduction of the jury’s damages award, so it is fair to wonder if this ruling signals a dramatic shift in response to rising jury awards. Do trial judges in New Jersey now have the green light to substitute their opinion on case value for that of the jury in any case? The Supreme Court wrote that trial judges have an understanding of the “wide range” of acceptable verdicts under a given set of facts, giving at the very least tacit approval to the notion that a certain set of facts, or a certain injury, corresponds with a certain range of potential verdicts. The question remains how much deference appellate courts will give to the trial court’s determination of what that acceptable range is, and how those courts will address variations from trial judge to trial judge in what they see as an acceptable jury verdict range for a given general set of facts.
On the surface, this appears to be great news for defendants and insurers with regard to risk certainty. If trial judges are aggressive, certain known acceptable verdict ranges would develop for certain injuries. However, there is a possibility for some negative fallout. Defendants and insurers must keep in mind that this will likely work both ways such that trial judges will also be permitted to increase jury awards that the judges believe are too low. Furthermore, the resulting reduction in uncertainty on both sides of the case raises the possibility that more cases will go to trial. One of the major catalysts for settlement of civil cases is the uncertainty of what a jury is going to do. With much of that uncertainty removed, there will be less incentive to settle cases. If that results in a greater percentage of cases going to trial, defendants and insurers will spend more money per case on average and the courts may face a logjam, causing cases to languish in uncertainty while waiting for a judge to be available for trial.
It will be interesting to see if judicial practices change following this ruling, or whether this amounts to much ado about nothing and trial judges remain hesitant to alter jury verdicts. The most likely scenario may be that some judges will be aggressive in altering jury awards while others will be hesitant to do so, which could result in inconsistencies that create frustrated litigants. It will also be worth following whether other states give trial judges this additional freedom, a freedom that creates potential positives and negatives for defendants and insurers.
Author: Fred J. Hughes