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Judicial Reduction of Damage Awards

Juries in medical malpractice cases have wide discretion in determining the amount of a damage award. However, this discretion is not boundless. Judges have the right and, in fact, the obligation to review damage awards and lower them if the judge deems them excessive. In general, the jury’s award is not to be disturbed unless it is entirely disproportionate to the injury sustained.

If a judge determines that a damage award is clearly excessive, he or she should order a “remittitur.” Remittitur describes the power of a court upon a motion for a new trial due to excessive damages rendered by a jury to require the plaintiff to consent to a decrease in the award to a specified amount as a condition for denial of the motion. In other words, remittitur denies a defendant a new trial if a plaintiff consents to a specified reduction in the jury award. Remittitur is designed to bring excessive damages awarded by a jury to the level that the court knows is within the limits of a proper verdict and thereby avoid the necessity of a new trial. Remittitur has long been employed by courts and legislatures to eliminate retrials for excessive verdicts.

Factors that a judge may look to in making a determination as to whether a damage award is excessive are as follows:

  • Whether the verdict appears to be the result of bias, prejudice or another improper motive
  • Whether the amount awarded appears to be reflective of the evidence produced in the case
  • Whether the verdict “shocks the conscience of the court”
  • Whether the verdict clearly exceeds the amount that any reasonable man could feel the plaintiff was entitled to

In one case in which the medical malpractice defendant sought a reduction of a damage award, the court ruled that the nearly $9 million verdict was not clearly excessive. In the case, the plaintiff was a 38-year-old male who had presented to the hospital for spinal surgery. As a result of the surgeon’s negligence, the patient was rendered a paraplegic. In ruling that the jury award was not excessive, the court reasoned that the jury award did not deviate unreasonably from what would be considered reasonable.

In another case, the court ruled that a jury verdict in the amount of $15 million was clearly excessive. In that case, the plaintiff had suffered a partially paralyzed arm due to her mother’s physician’s failure to order a C-section delivery. In figuring the amount by which to reduce the verdict, the court properly refused to substitute the court’s weighing and balancing for that of the jury. Thus, the court remitted the award to the highest figure that could be supported by the evidence. The appellate court ruled that the court’s method was the most analytically solid approach.

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