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Statistics for Business and Economics: Excel/Minitab Enhanced
Heinz Kohler
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Statistics in the News: Chapter 6 Presenting Data: Tables and Graphs

Examining the Myth of the Runaway Jury

As Chapter 6 notes, sometimes a simple table can tell a very important story. Here is one case in point: Lawyers defending businesses in product liability suits have long sought to avoid trials by juries. They have preferred trials by judges on the grounds that juries are irresponsible and incompetent and, therefore, much more likely than judges to award huge punitive damages after a guilty verdict. And critics of the civil justice system have long argued that reform is needed because of such runaway punitive damage verdicts. (Jury-imposed punitive awards, intended as punishment, allegedly have no reasonable relation to compensatory damage awards, which are intended to pay injured people for their losses.)

But a comprehensive study of 8,724 civil trials in 1996, covering 45 large courts in Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, found that juries and judges award punitive damages equally often! Table A summarizes the findings.

Table A

Percentage of Plaintiff Victories That Included Punitive Damages, United States, 1996
  Awarded by Jury Awarded by Judge
Defendant Status    
Individual vs. Individual 3.5 5.3
Individual vs. Government 2.4 0.0
Individual vs. Corporation 4.7 6.7
Individual vs. Hospital 3.1 0.0
Type of Case    
Premises Liability 1.1 10.8
Products Liability* 7.1 8.3
Intentional Tort 21.4 23.8
Fraud 15.0 12.6
Rental/Lease Agreement 7.3 0.7
All Cases 4.0 4.0
*excluding asbestos

The study, to be published in the March 2002 issue of the Cornell Law Review, was conducted by Cornell Professors Theodore Eisenberg and Martin T. Wells and three analysts from the National Center for State Courts, an independent research group in Williamsburg, VA. As Table A shows so clearly, juries and judges generally hold similar views about the need for punitive damages. This suggests that juries are far less arbitrary than is widely believed. At least in 1996, juries awarded punitive damages in about the same percentage of all cases as judges did. (The study also shows that the relation between punitive and compensatory awards was about the same for juries and judges.)

But note: The new research plainly contradicts the work of W. Kip Viscusi, a Harvard law and economics professor. (In a 1999 study, for instance, he reports results of interviews with 95 state judges and 277 potential jurors. Responding to questions about a hypothetical railroad accident, 23 percent of the judges, but 67 percent of the jurors said they would have awarded punitive damages.) The Eisenberg/Wells findings also seem at odds with the fact that judges often reduce what they consider to be unreasonable punitive jury awards. Indeed, according to Victor E. Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, a business group that lobbies for changes in the law, reform is needed not because juries are always out of control but because they act as a cheering section for the trial lawyers in a handful of extreme cases and then award punitive damages equal to many multiples of the compensatory awards. Admittedly, even the Eisenberg/Wells study discovered 7 such outrageous awards among the 121 jury verdicts containing punitive damages.

Source: Adapted from William Glaberson, "A Study's Verdict: Jury Awards Are Not Out of Control," The New York Times, August 6, 2001, pp. A1 and A9.

Additional Readings:

Viscusi, W. Kip. Reforming Products Liability (Harvard University Press, 1991).

For the Eisenberg/Wells study in question, visit the Cornell Law Review at http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/clr/default.htm.

For more about the American Tort Reform Association, visit http://www.atra.org.

 
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