Tennessee Court of Appeals Rules That Remittiturs Of 70% Or More Are Not Permitted

Remittiturs are court-ordered reductions in a jury verdict because the trial judge thought that the jury awarded too much money in compensatory or punitive damages.  They are a common sense, common law "tort reform" measure, designed to permit a judge who actually heard the evidence (or, in rare cases, the judges on an appellate court) to alter the amount of the jury’s verdict.

This case arises from a collision between a motorcycle and a car. Following a jury trial, fault was allocated 40% to the motorcyclist and 60% to the defendant motorist. The total damages awarded were $317,000.00 which based on fault allocations was reduced to $190,000.00. Upon motion of the defendant, the trial court granted a remittitur finding the jury’s awards for future pain and suffering and future loss of enjoyment of life were excessive. Accordingly, the court reduced those awards and approved a judgment for the motorcyclist in the amount of $54,192.10. The remittitur was accepted under protest and an appeal was taken.

Pursuant to T.C.A. 20-10-102, trial courts are statutorily authorized to grant a remittitur as necessary to cure an excessive jury verdict and avoid the expense of a new trial. When reviewing a trial court’s grant of remittitur, Tennessee appellate courts will conduct a three-step review consisting of (1) the trial court’s reasons for granting a remittitur; (2) the amount of the reduction to ensure it does not destroy the jury’s verdict; (3) the evidence related to damages to assess whether the proof is consistent with the remittitur.

In this case, after reviewing the evidence adduced at trial related to future pain and suffering and future loss of enjoyment of life, the Court of Appeals concluded the award was excessive.   However, the court vacated the remittitur because it was so substantial as to destroy the jury’s verdict. The trial court’s reduction was 71.5%. And while the appellate courts are reluctant to establish a bright line rule, prior precedent generally established that remittiturs in excess of 70% are too great to maintain the integrity of the jury’s verdict. Accordingly, the case was remanded for a new trial on damages only. (The original fault allocation, which gave 60% fault to the defendant and 40% percent to the plaintiff, will be applied after the  new trial.)

The case is Adams v. Leamon, a November 25, 2013 decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals (Eastern Section).