New Jersey Judges can reduce Jury verdicts based upon the “Feel of the Case”

side note: Wow. This is a new wrinkle in the New Jersey judicial system.

For the longest time, the argument against caps on non-economic damages was that they violated a plaintiff’s right to a jury trial, where the jury decides compensation. Here, a judge can invalidate or adjust a medical malpractice jury verdict simply on his or her “feel for the case.” And because — in theory — each judge could have a different feel for a case, this new wrinkle offers no advantage of predictability, which medical professional liability insurers say helps them predict losses and keep malpractice insurance premiums down.

The author also argues that this new wrinkle could have the opposite of its intended effect, and actually increase the number of medical malpractice cases that go to trial.

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.

continue reading