The Consequence of Unreasonable Verdicts
As a plaintiff's attorney I believe that verdicts in all cases should be reasonable. Unreasonable verdicts tend to inflame the passions of people who do not like lawyers, and who do not want people to ever be able to redress their grievances through the court system. As a plaintiff's lawyer one of my biggest obstacles is not defense lawyers, it's other plaintiff's lawyers.
Recently a patently ridiculous verdict was returned by a jury in a nursing home case. The verdict of $1,100,000,000 is simply so out of proportion to the harm in the case that it has absolutely no chance of surviving review by the trial and appellate courts in Florida where it was returned. But making matters worse, there are plaintiff's lawyers defending the verdict as a "sign of the times." If they really cared about protecting the elderly, they wouldn't be so quick to jump on the bandwagon. Cases like this make insurers think twice before offering liability insurance. And being able to collect a verdict is often more important than being able to obtain it.
Courts in most states, including Florida, have either by common law or statute a doctrine called remittitur that allows a court to review a verdict reached by a jury and increase it if the award is too small, or remit it if the verdict is too large. In Florida the statute provides in relevant part:
768.74 Remittitur and additur.-
(1) In any action to which this part applies wherein the trier of fact determines that liability exists on the part of the defendant and a verdict is rendered which awards money damages to the plaintiff, it shall be the responsibility of the court, upon proper motion, to review the amount of such award to determine if such amount is excessive or inadequate in light of the facts and circumstances which were presented to the trier of fact.
(2) If the court finds that the amount awarded is excessive or inadequate, it shall order a remittitur or additur, as the case may be.
(3) It is the intention of the Legislature that awards of damages be subject to close scrutiny by the courts and that all such awards be adequate and not excessive.
(4) If the party adversely affected by such remittitur or additur does not agree, the court shall order a new trial in the cause on the issue of damages only.
(5) In determining whether an award is excessive or inadequate in light of the facts and circumstances presented to the trier of fact and in determining the amount, if any, that such award exceeds a reasonable range of damages or is inadequate, the court shall consider the following criteria:
(a) Whether the amount awarded is indicative of prejudice, passion, or corruption on the part of the trier of fact;
(b) Whether it appears that the trier of fact ignored the evidence in reaching a verdict or misconceived the merits of the case relating to the amounts of damages recoverable;
(c) Whether the trier of fact took improper elements of damages into account or arrived at the amount of damages by speculation and conjecture;
(d) Whether the amount awarded bears a reasonable relation to the amount of damages proved and the injury suffered; and
(e) Whether the amount awarded is supported by the evidence and is such that it could be adduced in a logical manner by reasonable persons.
Remittitur is a good thing because it keeps juries from being whipped into a frenzy by a particularly good lawyer. And in this particular case, the principal allegations of negligence were 17 prior falls at the facility. The jury awarded $110,000,000 in damages for negligence, and $1 million in punitive damages against a defendant that "defaulted" in court.
In other words, the defendant simply made no defense to the charge of negligence. In such a situation it is easy to see where a jury might be whipped into a frenzy and award damages in excess of reasonable compensation.
While no amount of money can compensate for the value of a human life, there are limits of reasonableness that apply, and even absent an appeal by the defendant in this case, the Court is likely obligated to enter a remittitur on the verdict because of the sheer size of the damages. If the defendant does appeal the damages award, there are multiple avenues of appeal. First, the trial court will have to decide if under the evidence the damages equate to the harm caused. Then, under constitutional review, the punitive damages will have to pass muster under the principles of due process.
The United States Supreme Court requires that compensatory damages bear some reasonable relationship to punitive damages, and a ratio of greater than 9:1 is very rarely ever within the bounds of reason. Without such a relationship, the award is said to violate due process.
While this verdict may indeed cause a lot of worry in the nursing home industry, it probably shouldn't. The company was not represented at trial, the trial was only about damages, and the defendant had not put on a defense. In most nursing home cases, that won't be the situation. But it may certainly cause a spike in liability insurance rates in Florida if it is not quickly remitted.