Jury awards are rarely out of line with judges' decisions

August 15, 2001

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A jury, persuaded by emotional testimony, awards a woman an unprecedented sum for scalding herself on hot coffee in a fast-food restaurant. Are outsized awards by untrained juries typical of what ails our judicial system? Not really, say two Cornell University professors, whose new study suggests that juries are far more rational and fair than critics believe them to be.

The Cornell study shows that jury awards for punitive damages are no larger in relation to compensatory awards and no more frequent than judges' awards. The finding contradicts popular opinion and a previous, less comprehensive study by other researchers.

The new study, which looks at close to 9,000 actual trials across the United States, is believed to be one of the largest of its kind. It was conducted by Theodore Eisenberg , the Henry Allen Mark Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Martin Wells, professor of social statistics in Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relation and chair of the Department of Biometry, and three analysts from the National Center for State Courts, an independent research group.

Punitive compensation -- which, in civil suits, is occasionally granted in addition to compensatory damages for monetary loss -- is understood to be a kind of punishment of the offender. But while enormous punitive awards are not the norm, they do grab headlines when they are handed down, motivating Congress and the Supreme Court to attempt to restrict the power of juries in civil cases.

Critics have guessed that punitive damage awards would be much less arbitrary and more fair if more judges, and fewer juries, determined their size.

But the Cornell study showed that when the additional punitive damages were granted -- as in about 4 percent of the successful suits studied -- juries and judges usually granted awards with about the same proportion of punitive to compensatory damages. "People's knowledge about the mass of awards is misleading," said Eisenberg. "Policy is being determined on the notion that there are these crazy jurors out there that need to be reined in by legislatures and courts. The evidence is that juries are not out of control."

He commented that in the case of the scalding coffee suit, some facts got lost in the media shuffle, for example, that the fast-food chain had received many complaints of burns from its coffee before the suit and had failed to make changes.

However, Eisenberg noted that in a small group of verdicts -- seven out of the 121 punitive-damage awards by juries and 55 by judges studied -- a jury or a judge made a punitive award that was high in relation to other awards (that, in fact, was what happened in the case of the scalding coffee suit, with the trial judge substantially reducing the award in the end).

But the Cornell study showed that disparities were far fewer than critics have suggested, Eisenberg said, and rulings in such cases were often overturned on appeal. In those few, rare instances when they were not overturned, he asserts they were justified, as in a case "where a sports coach sexually abused a young athlete."

Eisenberg , Wells and their colleagues looked at 8,724 trials from large trial courts in 45 counties across the United States. The trials they studied were conducted in 1996 in Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City and elsewhere. Juries decided 6,429 of the cases and judges decided 2,295. An earlier study by academic researchers looked only at hypothetical cases presented to a much smaller sample that included judges and people eligible for juries, but not actual jurors.

A final version of the study will be published in the Cornell Law Review in March 2002.

Cornell University

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