What's Wrong With Capping Damages In Personal Injury Cases?
Posted on 1st February, 2024
The debate over whether our civil justice system should be reformed has been pushed to the forefront with the recent swearing in of the new administration and Congress.
Setting limits on the amount of damages that can be awarded in personal injury cases is a familiar refrain by insurance companies and corporations who are held accountable in civil courtrooms every day across this great country of ours.
As a lawyer on the front lines of representing people whose lives are often devastated by the carelessness of others, I can tell you that putting artificial limits on a jury's ability to dispense justice is not the answer.
Is Our Society Too Litigious? Are Damage Awards Too High?
Given the propaganda war waged by insurance companies and other powerful lobby groups, the knee-jerk response to these questions is usually, "Of course we are, and yes, jury awards are out of control." However, the truth is actually the opposite. Studies show that the number and frequency of civil filings have actually fallen nationwide in the last few decades. And what about the common perception that jury awards are escalating out of control?
In a landmark study conducted by the Rand Institute in 2004, data from verdicts over the previous 40 years were analyzed to determine whether the "pessimistic view of runaway juries and increasingly generous awards" was, in fact, true. The study concluded that any growth in the average verdict was less than the growth of real income over that 40-year period.
With respect to automobile cases, they concluded that the average award actually declined over time after controlling for inflated medical costs, which made up the majority of many of the awards.
So, why is it important to let juries dispense justice with respect to the necessity and amount of the damages they include in their verdicts? The right to a jury trial is so fundamental to our Constitution; it is specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The framers of our Constitution trusted the collective wisdom of 12 ordinary citizens infinitely more than the government to dispense justice equally and without passion or prejudice. And making all factual decisions, including the amount of just compensation for a grievance, is central to the jury's function.
Taking that power away from the jury deprives a litigant of this fundamental right. A legislature that sets an arbitrary limit on damages is precisely the type of governmental interference the Seventh Amendment was designed to prevent. In my experience, the collective wisdom of a jury is about the fairest way anyone has ever conceived to settle disputes. Jurors tend to take their jobs very seriously, and by the time 12 people express all of their differing opinions and work through what justice should be in the case, the right result inevitably follows. And if it doesn't, the trial judge has the power to set aside a jury verdict if it's not supported by substantial evidence.
My Faith Is in the 12 People Sitting in the Box, Not the 535 Sitting in the Capitol
The next time you hear the argument being made that we should put an arbitrary limit on a jury's ability to dispense justice, put yourself in the shoes of someone who just lost a loved one due to a drunk driver or whose child suffers permanent blindness or disfiguring facial scars because an airbag deployed with exploding shrapnel.
Is it really fair to set an arbitrary limit on what the jury can do to try and balance the scales of what was taken in each example? What if the limit was $250,000? $100,000? $10,000? All three figures are arbitrary and potentially a miscarriage of justice when imposed by a legislature in a vacuum in the absence of any facts.