Monday, September 26, 2016

NJ Justices Reject 'Feel of the Case' Doctrine, Overturn 2011 Ruling Reducing Damage Award | New Jersey Law Journal

 In Cuevas v. Wentworth the Supreme Court of New Jersey has overturned its ill-considered ruling in He v. Miller,  207 N.J. 230 (2011) which embraced a vague "feel of the case standard" for judges considering motions to reduce a jury verdict.  The rule, which harked back to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes view that the jury "aid" the conscience of the court, and that as trial experience grows judges need juries less and less. -gwc

NJ Justices Reject 'Feel of the Case' Doctrine, Overturn 2011 Ruling Reducing Damage Award | New 

by Carmen Natale

In a unanimous ruling, the court repudiated its five-year-old ruling that said judges could rely on their experiences as attorneys in private practice and their years on the bench to determine whether verdicts are unusually or unjustly high and need to be trimmed.
"The pre-eminent role that the jury plays in our justice system call for judicial restraint in exercising the power to reduce a jury's damages award," wrote Justice Barry Albin in Cuevas v. Wentworth Group. "A court should not grant a remittitur except in the unusual case in which the jury's award is so patently excessive, so pervaded by a sense of wrongness, that it shocks the judicial conscience."
The ruling in Cuevas essentially overturns the court's 2011 3-2 ruling in He v. Miller, in which the majority ruled that a judge was permitted to rely on his "feel for the case"—based on his professional experience—to slash a $1 million verdict to $200,000 in a medical malpractice case.
Albin and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner dissented in He. The members of the majority, Justices Helen Hoens and Roberto Rivera-Soto and Appellate Division Judge Dorothea Wefing, temporarily assigned, no longer sit on the court.
"[W]e now conclude that such an approach is not sound in principle or workable in practice," Albin said, referring to the ruling in He,
"A judge's personal knowledge of verdicts from experiences as a private practitioner or jurist is information outside the record and is not subject to the typical scrutiny evidence receives in the adversarial process," he said. "A judge therefore should not rely on personal knowledge of the verdicts."
A trial judge should also not do comparative case analysis in deciding motions for remittitur, Albin said. He said jury verdicts in specific cases differ and are not susceptible to comparison.
In Cuevas, the court upheld a verdict in which two Hispanic brothers were awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars each in damages after alleging that they faced discrimination in the workplace because of their ethnicity, even though they did not present any expert testimony attesting to the severity of their emotional distress.
At their trial, they were the only ones to testify about their emotional distress. Ramon Cuevas told the jury he was "despondent" and "depressed." Jeffrey Cuevas also testified that he was depressed, court documents said.
A Passaic County jury awarded Ramon Cuevas and Jeffrey Cuevas $800,000 and $600,000, respectively. Superior Court Judge Esther Suarez declined to apply her personal experiences as a jurist and attorney and denied a defense motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, saying it "did not shock the judicial conscience."...

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