In a civil trial, a judge may set aside the verdict regarding how much money should be awarded by the jury to the plaintiff in punitive damages. These damages consist of a dollar figure the jury awards the plaintiff in order to punish the defendant. This amount is totally distinct from compensatory damages, which are meant to reimburse the plaintiff for lost wages as well as pain and suffering. Given the purpose of punitive damages, juries can award verdicts that in punitive damages alone amount to millions of dollars.
The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution precludes review by any court of a judgment over $20. In light of this provision, courts will not overturn an award made by a jury just because of its large size or because the judge, if he had been standing in their shoes, would have awarded a smaller sum. However, a judge may reduce the amount of the award if it is far in excess of any rational calculation. Because compensatory damages such as lost wages have formulas by which juries can arrive at an acceptable figure, the reduction of an award is usually applied to punitive damages. The specific ground judges use to justify this action is that the award was made out of “passion and prejudice”.
In criminal cases, judges may disregard a jury’s guilty verdict and acquit or grant a new trial if they believe the evidence was insufficient to support the decision made by the jurors. Judges may also set aside a verdict if they believe the verdict was reached on a basis that violates the U.S. or respective State constitution or if the legal theory on which the jury based their decision does not conform to the law.