In Cuevas v. Wentworth Group, the Supreme Court of New Jersey revisited and disapproved the "Feel of the Case" Doctrine that was adopted in 2011 as a measure for consideration in post-trial Remittitur Motions. This Doctrine had afforded a Trial Judge the flexibility of relying on his or her past experience, and also the leeway to consider comparable verdicts presented by the parties, in the determination of whether a jury verdict was "excessive."
In the Cuevas matter, two plaintiffs brought a racial discrimination lawsuit against their employer. The jury returned a verdict awarding one plaintiff $800,000 and the other $600,000 for emotional distress damages. However, neither plaintiff was treated by a mental health professional or called any expert to link the workplace discrimination to emotional distress. The defense filed a post-trial Motion for Remittitur, to either reduce the damages award or obtain a new trial. The Trial Judge denied the Motion for Remittitur, finding that the jury award for emotional distress damages did not "shock the conscious of the Court."
The Supreme Court held that the Trial Court properly denied the Motion for Remittitur, explaining that although on the high end, the verdict was not so manifestly unjust that it "shocked the judicial conscious." The Supreme Court held that a Trial Judge should neither rely on personal knowledge of other verdicts, nor on comparative-verdict methodology, when deciding a Remittitur Motion. Instead, the focus should solely be on the record of the case at issue, when determining whether a damages award is so grossly excessive that it falls outside of the "wide range of acceptable outcomes."
Comment: The Supreme Court's rationale behind the rejection of the "Feel of the Case" Doctrine is based on the notion that each case is unique and also the pre-eminent role the jury plays in our civil court system. As a result of the Cuevas decision, parties seeking Remittitur will be solely limited to the trial record. In addition to these limitations, the ultimate outcome in Cuevas (denying Remittitur for an award of a combined $1.4 million in untreated emotional distress damages unsupported by any expert testimony) will make it that much more challenging for the defense to contest a jury verdict in any personal injury type lawsuit for pain and suffering or emotional distress damages, on the basis that it "shocks the judicial conscience."
Sara L. De Long