One of the more vexing problems in civil litigation is whether a court should overturn a jury verdict on the issue of damages. What may seem to be a well-deserved albeit generous award to one person may seem like a runaway jury to another. Jury instructions on the proper measure of damages for pain and suffering or emotional distress seem vague and subjective. The jury is exhorted to award “what a reasonable person would consider to be adequate and just under all circumstances to compensate the plaintiff” without much guidance on how complete this mission.
After an unexpected large verdict, a defendant will either ask the trial judge to vacate the damages award in its entirety or seek a remittitur (reduction) to a more reasonable sum. But how should a trial court in New Jersey perform this task? Should the trial judge draw on his own experience as a former practicing attorney or judge to assess the award? Are comparable verdicts an accurate measure of what’s fair and reasonable in the case at hand?
In Cuevas v. Wentworth, the New Jersey Supreme Court revisited the proper standard of review when examining the reasonableness of a jury verdict in a race-based discrimination case. In Cuevas, two brothers of Hispanic descent were hired by a real estate management company as regional vice presidents. After initial success at the company, the brothers were fired after they complained about demeaning and racially insensitive comments either made in their presence or directed at them. The case was eventually tried before a jury and a punishing verdict was awarded against the defendants.
The Cuevas court provided a detailed overview of how a trial court should assess whether a jury verdict is excessive. The touchstone is whether the verdict shocks the conscience of the court. In reviewing the award, a jury verdict should be given “the presumption of correctness.” Thus, all evidence should be taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs and the verdict reduced only if shown to be grossly excessive by clear and convincing proof.
Cuevas also made two specific changes on this subject. First, the court concluded that “a trial judge’s reliance on her personal experience as a practicing attorney or jurist in deciding a remittitur motion is a not sound or workable approach.” Concerned about inherent subjectivity of each judge’s experiences, the court advocated the more objective “shocks the judicial conscience” standard that relies on the particular circumstances of the case before the court rather than the trial judge’s own past experience.
Similarly, the court rejected the comparison of supposedly similar verdicts to judge whether the award is grossly excessive. Although viewed favorably in prior cases, the Supreme Court found this method to be a “futile exercise that should be abandoned.” Finding a true “comparable” case illusive, the parties are directed to focus on the particular facts of the case before the court, not on some snippet from the New Jersey Law Journal or jury verdict reporter about another case handled by another judge.
The pursuit of perfect justice is a difficult endeavor. While Cuevas purports to eliminate subjectivity in the task of examining a civil damages award, the New Jersey Supreme Court has eliminated a trial judge’s ability to rely on her own prior experience or refer to prior similar verdicts when deciding motions to reduce a jury verdict. Defendants beware because we predict that the trial court bench will become even more reluctant to reduce a jury verdict based on excessiveness in light of Cuevas.