The authority of civil case jurors to decide whether damages should be awarded – and how much – is held in high regard. However, the trial judge does have some discretion to reduce damages (remittitur) or increase damages (nisi additur). This may be done if the award fails to adhere to some statutory guideline (such as a damage cap) or if the judge decides that failure to alter the award would result in a miscarriage of justice that could result in a new trial.
In the recent case of Riley v. Ford Motor Corp., the judge overseeing a product liability lawsuit against a motor vehicle manufacturer determined the jury’s award of $300,000 was far too low, given the loss to the family and community. Decedent, who was killed in a truck accident when a 16-year-old high school student swerved in front of him, was the county sheriff, a deacon at the local church, a father of five and a husband. He had been ejected in the collision after the impact caused his driver’s side door to pop open and he was ejected. His wife sued the teen as well as the vehicle manufacturer. Against the latter, she alleged the door latch system was defectively designed, and the proximate cause of her husband’s death.
The case against the teen was settled prior to trial for $25,000. Trial against the vehicle manufacturer proceeded, and plaintiff prevailed. During the damages portion of the proceeding, witness after witness after witness provided testimony to the court of decedent’s valued presence in their lives and in the community. It got to the point the judge actually had to have an in camera discussion about whether to continue to allow witnesses to testify – something the judge noted was extremely rare.