Attorney Van O'Steen

Statistics Offer Yardstick for "Unreasonable" Jury Awards

Van O'Steen

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William Sawyer was 25 years old, unmarried and living with his father in rural Idaho. He often visited his mother, who lived nearby, and frequently spent time with his father in outdoor activities.

While William was driving to visit his mother, his pickup truck was hit by a logging truck.  William died as a result of the accident.

The young man's parents, Ralph and June Sawyer, filed a wrongful death suit against the driver of the logging truck for damages resulting from the loss of their son.  An Idaho jury returned a verdict for the Sawyers in the amount of $3,000 plus funeral expenses.  The Sawyers appealed the verdict on the basis that it was shockingly low.

Obviously, no amount of money could compensate the Sawyers for the loss of their son. But because we cannot restore life, money is all we have to work with.

Juries regularly face the difficult and unpleasant task of assigning a monetary value to important intangible losses, such as death of a loved one of the effect of a serious injury on the victim’s life.  In most cases, juries perform this imprecise chore very well.

Occasionally, however, a verdict will be unreasonably high or low. The Sawyers experienced the low-end extreme.

In evaluating the reasonableness of the Sawyer verdict, the Idaho Court of Appeals measured it against a statistical analysis of nationwide jury verdicts. The Idaho Court observed that approximately 96 percent of all damages verdicts fall within a range considered reasonable by statisticians.

From a statistical standpoint, the remaining 4 percent reflect some abnormal event, resulting in awards that are too high or too low.

Only closely similar cases are appropriate for comparison.

When the court compared the Sawyer verdict with those of other cases involving the claims of parents for the death of an adult child, the court found that the amount was unreasonably low.

The case was returned to the trial court for reconsideration and probable retrial. Standard deviation analysis is a well-accepted statistical approach for making comparisons of this type.

We would be wise to develop the data bases necessary to measure jury verdicts in this manner.

For cases without unusually peculiar facts or circumstances to set them apart, this statistical approach could prove to be a valuable tool in correcting the 4 percent of  verdicts that are too high or too low.  The approach is especially helpful in accident injury and death cases.