A recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision that judges considering motions to modify jury awards should rely on the specific facts of a case as opposed to past verdicts leaves defendants vulnerable to arbitrarily determined, and possibly excessive, damage payouts, experts say.
In a unanimous Sept. 19 decision, the justices upheld a trial judge’s refusal to reduce a $1.4 million emotional distress award to two former Wentworth Property Management Group executives in a racial discrimination case. The high court said the judge rightly relied on testimony and observations of the jury in the specific case, rather than on her own judicial experience or previous verdicts in other cases. Wentworth had earlier said the damages figure “shocked the judicial conscience.”
In the wake of the decision, parties seeking remittitur will have to focus more intensely on the contents of the trial record and may also consider noting the judge’s observations of the witnesses and the jury’s reactions to them, according to Adam N. Saravay, an employment litigation partner at McCarter & English LLP’s Newark office.
Case law won’t necessarily go by the wayside in remittitur motions, he added.
“I expect that litigators will still cite other cases in which remittitur has been granted or denied, but it will probably be harder to convince trial judges that such comparisons are material,” Saravay said.