As the drumbeat for tort reform sounds louder - almost by the day - one of the pillars of the argument lies in "runaway jury awards." And while I certainly agree that there are instances where it seems - at least at first blush - that the judicial system has failed to produce a rational result in a tort case, I also believe that this particular issue in the overall debate has been terribly overblown, and is, to a large extent, not grounded in fact.
There are several reasons for this, but in my mind, here are two of the most important ones:
- The amount of the jury's award is often reduced by the court. This "little" fact almost never makes the news. And the reason should be relatively obvious: it doesn't make for good copy. On the other hand, a jury's supposed eye-whopping verdict certainly does.
- When the verdict is extremely large, the plaintiff rarely, if ever, actually recovers the amount that he is awarded. Again, the reason for this should be fairly obvious as well: insurance. Very often, the collectible part of a judgment will be limited to the limits of the defendant's insurance policy. Stated differently, if you get a $15,000,000 judgment, but the defendant has a limited policy and no collectible assets, how much is that judgment actually worth?
So, in the interest of promoting an open and honest debate on the subject of tort reform, a good place to start would be candor regarding the true significance (or the lack thereof) of jury awards.