Last summer, the Texas Supreme Court reversed a $15 million jury award because “plaintiffs’ counsel at no point in these proceedings has attempted to proffer a rational argument justifying either the amount sought or the amount awarded. At trial, the only arguments provided to justify an amount of damages were impermissible appeals to irrelevant considerations, such as fighter jets and [defendant’s] total miles driven.” (See Texas Supreme Court Reverses $15M Jury Award)
The decision in Gregory v. Chohan reminds attorneys that juries are entrusted with the responsibility of rendering fair and just verdicts in civil cases, and that includes the appropriate amount of damages. The Texas Supreme Court gives us a good reminder that juries need guidance so that there are no longer instances where juries might resort to arbitrary methods, such as picking numbers out of a hat, to arrive at a damages figure.
This article explores the potential repercussions of such practices and emphasizes the importance of reasoned decision-making in the jury room.
The Purpose of Damages:
Damages in civil cases serve two fundamental purposes: compensating the injured party for the harm they have suffered and deterring similar wrongful conduct in the future. Pattern jury instructions across different jurisdictions differ in their treatment of elements to be considered, their level of specificity in defining these elements, and whether a particular factor is treated as a distinct element of general damages or is encompassed within the category of pain and suffering.(Wissler, Kuehn, & Saks, 2000). Calculating damages requires a careful evaluation of various factors, including the nature and extent of the injury, medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and the impact on the plaintiff's quality of life. These considerations necessitate a thoughtful and deliberate approach rather than relying on random selection methods.
Jurors are often at sea about the amounts that should be awarded (Reyna, et al., 2015).. The jury in the Texas case either misunderstood, misinterpreted, or ignored the purpose of compensatory damages. The Texas Supreme Court’s plurality opinion points out that: “compensation, not punishment or deterrence, is the goal of noneconomic damages.” (Ibid) The jurors in this case did not follow this direction and thus swayed from the purpose of damages.
The Temptation of Arbitrariness:
Jury deliberations can be complex and challenging. With varying perspectives, emotions, and personal biases at play, arriving at a consensus can be difficult. In some instances, juries may become overwhelmed or frustrated, leading to the temptation to resort to quick and arbitrary decision-making methods. It should not be unexpected that jurors utilize a wide array of strategies in their endeavor, and there appears to be little question that the considerable variability in awards can be attributed, to some extent, to the absence of clear guidance (Greene & Bornstein, 2003). Picking a number out of a hat or similar random processes might seem like an easy way out, but it undermines the principles of justice and fairness that the legal system is built upon.
The Texas Supreme Court’s plurality opinion affirmed the importance of justice and fairness in the legal system when it stated about the aforementioned case: “On appeal, the plaintiffs’ suggested approach is that as long as the jury is properly instructed and no improper motive is evident, then the jury may essentially ‘pick a number and put it in the blank.’ But that is precisely the kind of arbitrariness our precedent attempts to avoid by insisting on ‘evidence to justify the amount awarded.’” (Ibid)
The Reversal of Verdicts:
When juries rely on arbitrary methods to determine damages, they run the risk of rendering verdicts that are unjust or disproportionate to the harm suffered. Such verdicts are susceptible to being overturned on appeal as you can see in the case we are examining. The courts generally require juries to base their decisions on the evidence presented, legal instructions given by the judge, and sound reasoning. When a verdict is found to be arbitrary or unsupported by the evidence, it can be reversed, necessitating a retrial and causing unnecessary delays and expenses for all parties involved.
Preserving the Integrity of Jury Deliberations:
To ensure the integrity of the jury system, it is crucial to emphasize the importance of reasoned decision-making. Juries should be encouraged to engage in open and thoughtful discussions, carefully weigh the evidence presented, and consider the applicable legal principles. While reaching a unanimous decision might not always be possible, the focus should be on a fair and reasoned outcome, rather than a hasty and arbitrary one.
Legal Guidance and Education:
To prevent juries from resorting to arbitrary methods, legal professionals have a responsibility to provide clear guidance during jury instructions. Judges should emphasize the significance of considering the evidence and provide tools for evaluating damages based on legal standards and precedents. Enhancing the precision in defining the elements of general damages and providing clear distinctions between components of damages and non-components could improve jurors' comprehension and application of fundamental instructions regarding the compensable aspects of harm to the plaintiff (Wissler, Keehn, & Saks, 2000). Additionally, ongoing juror education initiatives can enhance jurors' understanding of their role and equip them with the necessary skills to make informed decisions.
In our First Court mock trials and focus groups, we always ask jurors why they awarded the damages that they did in order to see if the attorneys on the case had outlined the purpose of the damages and the reason behind the amount of damages clearly enough. This feedback is extremely helpful for attorneys to hone their presentations and to better know what to expect from opposing counsel.
Juries play a vital role in ensuring justice and fairness in civil cases, particularly when determining the appropriate amount of damages to be awarded. While the deliberation process can be challenging, resorting to arbitrary methods, such as picking numbers out of a hat, jeopardizes the integrity of the jury system and can lead to reversed verdicts. It is imperative that juries approach their decision-making with care, reason, and a commitment to the principles of justice, ultimately ensuring that the damages awarded are fair and just.
1. Andrew L. Johnson, William R. Moye. (2023) Texas Supreme Court Reverses $15M Jury Award, Rejects Arbitrary ‘Picking Numbers Out of a Hat’ Approach to Noneconomic Damages. https://www.thompsoncoe.com/resources/publications/texas-supreme-court-reverses-15m-jury-award-rejects-arbitrary-picking-numbers-out-of-a-hat-approach-to-noneconomic-damages/.
2. Greene, E., & Bornstein, B. H. (2003). Determining damages: The psychology of jury awards. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10464-009.
3. Reyna, V. F., Hans, V. P., Corbin, J. C., Yeh, R., Lin, K., & Royer, C. (2015). The gist of juries: Testing a model of damage award decision making. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law, 21(3), 280-294. doi:10.1037/law0000048.
4. Wissler, R. L., Kuehn, P. F., & Saks, M. J. (2000). Instructing jurors on general damages in personal injury cases: Problems and possibilities. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law, 6(3), 712-742. doi:10.1037/1076-8918.104.22.1682.
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