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Punitive damages were a high-profile issue in 2003. In April the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision, State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company v. Campbell, warning that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages . . . will satisfy due process” ["Damage Control on Punitives," June 2003]. Did lawyers temper their demands accordingly? Were juries inspired to exercise restraint? It’s too soon to answer these questions. But the annual review of the 100 largest jury verdicts conducted by VerdictSearch, a Corporate Counsel affiliate, showed that awards � and especially punitives � dropped dramatically in 2003. Among the top 50 verdicts, the median ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was 3:1 in 2001, 4.4:1 in 2002, and 1.6:1 last year. The median punitive award dropped by 60 percent last year, while compensatories rose by about 12 percent. For all 100 top verdicts, the median awards, adjusted for inflation, rose from $45.7 million in 2001 to $51.1 million in 2002, only to drop last year to $34.7 million. In 2002 it took a $22.5 million verdict to make the list; in 2003, $18.5 million. Though it’s unlikely that many jurors were aware of the high court’s pronouncements in State Farm, highly publicized efforts to advance “tort reform” in the past few years may have influenced jury behavior. Rick Fuentes, a partner in the Atlanta office of the jury consulting firm RandD Strategic Solutions, thinks they have. He says that thanks to TV and media coverage jurors are increasingly “savvy about the process.” Fuentes consulted for the plaintiffs in State of Alabama v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, the case that yielded the largest verdict of 2003. Jurors are also well aware of large awards that have drawn criticism, like the McDonald’s spilled-coffee case, which was widely regarded as the quintessential frivolous suit. On the other hand, Fuentes adds, jurors also want punitive awards to be commensurate with wrongdoing. And they want them to withstand judicial review. Fuentes says he has heard jurors in mock jury exercises voice concern about judges slashing or tossing verdicts � and he’s seen them tailor awards accordingly. Theodore Eisenberg, a professor at Cornell Law School, agrees that publicity about tort reform has had an effect on verdicts. But he doubts whether State Farm will add to it. After the last landmark Supreme Court decision on punitives, BMW of North America v. Gore, in 1996, Eisenberg studied punitive awards from 1995 through 1997 and discerned no effect. If any practice area were to be affected by tort reform, the most likely candidate would be medical malpractice, given the media attention it has received. And “med-mal” verdicts were, in fact, down from 2002. In intellectual property cases, by contrast, juries awarded plaintiffs 9 percent more than in 2002. Nearly 80 percent of that total, however, came in just two judgments against Microsoft Corporation. If something about this list looks odd, it may be the absence of a tobacco case at the top. This is the first time in four years that a billion-dollar tobacco verdict did not lead the way. � David Hechler, with additional research by Ellen Athena Catsikeas A version of this story originally appeared in The National Law Journal, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel and part of American Lawyer Media.

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