December 23, 2011

New study shows jurors can't distinguish between intentional and reckless misconduct

This article in the National Law Journal discusses a new study released by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network of Law and Neuroscience, housed at Vanderbilt University.  The participants in the study were asked to determine the appropriate punishment for different types of misconduct, and were unable to draw distinctions between knowing and reckless misconduct.  Sometimes they punished reckless conduct more harshly than knowing conduct. 

The study involved criminal conduct, but the there's no reason to believe that jurors are any better at making this sort of determination in civil cases involving punitive damages.  As appellate lawyers we see plenty of cases where the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime.  We see jurors awarding punitive damages at the high-end of the single-digit ratio spectrum, even though the conduct at issue can't be characterized as highly reprehensible in relation to other types of punishable conduct.  (See, for example, this recent case in which a jury awarded $1,000,000 in punitive damages to a plaintiff who was allegedly slandered by a family member, but according to the jury's findings suffered no out-of-pocket loss.)  Fortunately, our experience has been that judges are more attuned to these types of distinctions, and are often able to bring these awards into line.