The Georgia Supreme Court decision in Rockdale Hospital, LLC v. Evans clears the way for trial courts, without much in the way of appellate review, to retry cases if the judge believes the jury got it wrong. S18G1189, S18G1190 (October 7, 2019).
The case at issue involved a medical malpractice lawsuit in which a jury awarded $1.1 million dollars to for the injured party’s past medical bills, but zero damages for future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, and past and future pain and suffering. The injured party appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, arguing that awarding zero damages for pain and suffering was “clearly inadequate” based on the $1.1 million award for past medical bills. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed the verdict was “clearly inadequate,” and instructed the trial court to retry the case. The decision makes sense because it seems impossible to have $1 million of medical treatment without, at the same time, experiencing significant pain and suffering.
The Georgia Court of Appeals’ decision was appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court (the highest court in Georgia). The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed with the Georgia Court of Appeals and overruled its decision. The Georgia Supreme Court decided that whether or not to retry a case is almost always up to the trial judge, not the appellate courts. As long as the trial judge reasonably exercises his or her discretion, the appellate courts must go along with the judge’s decision regarding whether a jury verdict was clearly excessive or inadequate. The reasoning is that trial judges personally observed the witnesses and evidence, and are therefore in the best position to evaluate jury verdicts. The Court concluded that appellate courts have authority to set aside jury verdicts only when the verdict is so irrational as to be the obvious result of bias, corruption, or prejudice; this is characterized by the Court as an “extremely high” threshold. In other words, in most cases, appellate courts lack authority to review a trial court’s decision on this issue.
We’ll have to see how this ruling plays out, but in theory the decision cuts both ways because it potentially impacts both small and large verdicts. The takeaway is that in most instances, trial judges now get to decide if the verdict was too large or too small with little oversight from the appellate courts.