When a jury awards an excessive amount of punitive damages, the trial court has the authority to order a new trial unless the plaintiff agrees to accept a reduced amount. That’s a well-established principle of posttrial procedure.
But are there some situations where the jury’s award is so high that the trial court should simply order a new trial, without giving the plaintiff an option of accepting a remittitur to a more reasonable number? Logic dictates that the answer should be yes. If an award is so high that it creates a presumption that the jury was acting out of passion and prejudice, then the defendant should be able to get a new trial before a jury that will decide the case based solely on the facts. In that situation, it is unfair to make the defendant pay the maximum amount that a jury could properly have awarded. Perhaps a jury that wasn’t influenced by passion and prejudice would have awarded something less than the maximum amount. This principle finds support in the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Sabella v. Southern Pacific, which assumed there are some situations in which excessive damages resulting from passion or prejudice “cannot be cured by a remittitur.”
The Court of Appeal in this unpublished opinion didn’t buy that argument, and rejected the defendant’s bid for a new trial. According to the court (Fourth Appellate District, Division Two), the trial court cured any problem with the jury’s $117 million punitive damages award by reducing it to $1.43 million. The court explained that ” ‘the relevant amount for purposes of our review is not the amount awarded by the jury, but the reduced amount ordered by the remittitur.’ ” That analysis makes sense where the defendant’s argument on appeal challenges the amount of the punitive damages. But the court’s analysis is not responsive to the defendant’s argument that the award was so high that it showed the jury was acting out of passion and prejudice, requiring a new trial. Here, where the jury’s verdict was more than eight times the highest amount that a reasonable jury could have awarded, there seems to be a strong argument that the jury’s verdict was based on passion and prejudice, and that the only way to cure that is to start over with a new jury.