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Supreme Court Defines Criteria for Granting Remittitur of Jury Verdict

By on November 4, 2016 in Awards with 0 Comments

A motion for remittitur is used by a defendant to attempt to obtain a reduction of an excessive jury verdict. A court has the power to reduce an excessive award through a grant of remittitur. In the recent case of Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, 226 N.J. 480 (2016), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a judge should not rely on either personal knowledge of other verdicts or comparative verdict methodology when deciding a remittitur motion.

If a court determines that a jury award is excessive, it may grant remittitur, reducing the award to the highest amount that could be sustained by the evidence. The plaintiff then has the choice to accept the award “as remitted” or proceed with a new damages trial before a new jury. To grant the motion, the judge must find that the award is so grossly excessive that it “shocks the judicial conscience.” Remittitur allows the parties the option of avoiding the unnecessary expense and delay of a new trial.

Cuevas involved a racial discrimination claim brought by two brothers employed by the defendant Wentworth Group who claimed they were subject to frequent degrading remarks based upon being of Hispanic descent and, when one of them complained, they were fired. The defendant claimed they were fired due to poor job performance.

The case was tried before a jury and awards were entered for both plaintiffs. The jury awarded plaintiff Ramon Cuevas $625,000 for past lost earnings; $400,000 for future lost earnings; $800,000 in emotional distress damages; and $52,500 in punitive damages. The jury awarded plaintiff Jeffrey Cuevas $150,000 for past lost earnings; $600,000 in emotional distress damages; and $32,500 in punitive damages.

The trial judge denied the defendants’ post-trial motions to vacate the jury’s verdict and the damages award. The defendants’ motion for a remittitur of the emotional distress damages was also denied. The judge determined that, based upon the evidence presented, the emotional distress damages award did not “shock the judicial conscience.” The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision to deny this motion. This decision was further appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The trial court found the plaintiffs to be credible and genuine. Both plaintiffs presented extremely well. The judge noted that the jury seemed attentive throughout the trial and fully understood the charge.

The Supreme Court pointed out that courts must exercise great restraint in granting remittitur because, in our constitutional justice system, “the jury – not the judge – is charged with the responsibility of deciding the merits of a civil claim and the quantum of damages to be awarded a plaintiff.” In this case, the remittitur motion involved a request to reduce the amount of the pain and suffering of a victim of racial discrimination. The Court noted that the proper compensation for such claim is not susceptible to scientific precision. There is no neat formula for determining the amount of money to compensate a victim of racial discrimination in the work place.

The Court explained that a jury’s verdict has a presumption of correctness. A judge may not substitute his or her judgment for that of a jury just because he would have ruled otherwise.

The Supreme Court held that a jurist’s reliance on his or her own personal experiences as a practicing attorney or as a judge is not a sound or workable approach in ruling on a remittitur motion. Essentially, this approach would be too subjective and would depend on the happenstance of the personal experiences of the trial judge assigned to his case. Thus, the Supreme Court found that a judge’s personal experiences would not be relevant in deciding a remittitur motion.

The Court also held that purportedly comparable verdicts should not form the basis to grant a remittitur. The facts and plaintiffs in every personal injury or discrimination case are so different that a true comparative analysis is illusory.

To determine whether an award “shocks the judicial conscience, a judge must look at the facts and testimony presented in that particular case. The Supreme Court held that the judge should conduct “a thorough analysis of the case itself; of the witnesses’ testimony; of the nature, extent, and duration of the plaintiff’s injuries; and of the impact of those injuries on the plaintiff’s life.” That analysis “will yield the best record on which to decide a remittitur motion.”

In this case, the Court pointed out that the plaintiffs testified to being subjected to nine months of racial harassment and hostility carried out in the presence of high ranking officers of the company. They were subjected to crude and degrading remarks that “invidiously stereotyped them and their heritage.”  They testified as to being humiliated, degraded, depressed, and anxious over their financial security. While the Supreme Court felt that the emotional distress damage awards were on the high side, the justices did not feel that they were so manifestly unjust that they shocked the judicial conscience. Thus, the Court upheld the Appellate Division’s affirmance of the denial by the trial court of the remittitur motion.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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