The New Jersey Supreme Court recently reversed the Appellate Division’s decision to remit a jury’s damage award in a personal injury case, finding that the Appellate Division had “essentially reweighed the evidence and substituted its judgment for that of the jury and trial judge, without warrant to do so.” The ruling should serve as a warning to defendants in New Jersey that the jury’s calculation of damages will generally be final and may not be altered by the Appellate Division unless there has been a manifest miscarriage of justice.
In Jastram v. Kruse, A-98-07 (N.J. December 23, 2008), the court determined that the jury’s award of $500,000 in compensatory damages for the plaintiff, who sustained a soft tissue lower back injury in an automobile accident, was not excessive, and the Appellate Division exceeded its authority when it ordered the award to be remitted or, in the alternative, a new trial on damages.
The plaintiff was a 17 year-old girl who was traveling in an automobile that was struck by another vehicle that was traveling at less than 30 miles per hour. At the scene of the accident, she told the police that she was not injured or in pain, and did not seek medical treatment until two weeks later. X-rays and an MRI of her spine revealed no structural damage to her spinal discs.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found that the defendant was 100% negligent, that his negligence proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and that the plaintiff was entitled to an award of $500,000 in damages, mostly for pain and suffering. After filing a motion for a new trial, which the trial judge denied, the defendant appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the jury’s damage award was clearly and shockingly excessive. The Appellate Division, finding that “thousands of garden-variety lumbar strains and sprains . . . pass through our courts every year, most of which settle for sums well under $50,000,” remitted the damage award to $50,000, plus prejudgment interest, and gave the plaintiff the option of a new trial on damages.
After granting the plaintiff’s petition for certification, the Supreme Court noted that the authority of the judiciary to set aside damage awards on grounds of excessiveness is limited, and that “the evaluation of damages is a matter uniquely reposed in the jury’s good judgment, and to justify judicial interference, the verdict must be ‘wide of the mark’ and pervaded by a sense of ‘wrongness.’” The Court determined that when a jury’s assessment of damages, even if high, has reasonable support in the record, its “evaluation should be regarded as final.”
Addressing the authority of the Appellate Division to review rulings on motions for a new trial based on perceived excessiveness of the jury’s damages award, the Court noted that, “under Rule 2:10-1, an appellate court only can reverse a trial judge’s decision to deny a motion for a new trial where ‘it clearly appears that there was a miscarriage of justice under the law.’” To satisfy the requirements of Rule 2:10-1, an appellate court must employ a “standard of review substantially similar to that used at the trial level, except that the appellate court must afford ‘due deference’ to the trial court’s ‘feel of the case,’ with regard to the assessment of intangibles, such as witness credibility.” The Court noted as follows:
The ‘feel of the case’ is not just an empty shibboleth – it is the trial judge who sees and hears the witness and the attorneys, and who has a first-hand opportunity to assess their believability and their effect on the jury. It is the judge who sees the jurors wince, weep, snicker, avert their eyes, or shake their heads in disbelief. Those personal observations of all of the players is ‘the feel of the case’ to which an appellate court defers.
The Court ultimately determined that the Appellate Division did not exercise proper deference to the trial court’s judgment, and that it engaged in an independent evaluation of the evidence, in effect sitting as a thirteenth juror. Further, the Appellate Division, while ostensibly acknowledging that it was required to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, in fact viewed the plaintiff’s evidence in a negative light, comparing the best aspects of the plaintiff’s case to the worst aspects of comparison cases. The Court was particularly critical of the Appellate Division’s reference to the “thousands of garden-variety lumbar strains and sprains that pass through our courts every year” that settle for under $50,000. According to the Court, this comment was improper, as the Appellate Division must give a “factual analysis of how the award is different or similar to others to which it is compared.”
Ultimately, the Court concluded that “[i]f there was evidence from which a rational jury could have reached the verdict, it should be upheld.” This ruling is significant for litigants and appellate practitioners in New Jersey because it limits the scope of appellate review of lower court rulings regarding the jury’s assessment of damages. Defendants should consider the limitations of the Appellate Division’s ability to provide relief from lower court rulings regarding the jury’s assessment of damages when deciding whether to settle a case and whether to file an appeal.