How Much Is Your Emotional Distress Worth?

How Much Is Your Emotional Distress Worth?

Federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation because the government wants people to report fraud in government contracts. When Weihua Huang, a principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant at the University of Virginia, discovered unauthorized changes that diverted grant money to unrelated salaries and expenses, he reported it to the head of UVa's Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. Soon thereafter, he was told his employment contract wouldn't be renewed. Huang sued for False Claims Act retaliation and won a jury verdict of $159,915 in lost wages plus $500,000 in compensatory emotional-distress damages. Not surprisingly, the defendants (Huang's supervisor Dr. Ming D. Li, and Department Chair Dr. Bankole A. Johnson) asked the court to reduce the damages award as excessive.

Specifically, the defendants invoked a process known as remittitur, asking Judge Norman K. Moon to either reduce the emotional distress damages to $10,000, or order a new trial. They pointed out that the only evidence of emotional distress was Huang's own unsupported testimony. There was no evidence, for example, of medical treatment or other corroborating evidence. They argued that where the injury consists of emotional distress, the Fourth Circuit usually finds six-figure damages awards excessive when not supported by medical evidence.

A jury's compensatory damages award will be considered excessive if it is "against the clear weight of the evidence or based on evidence which is false." Under Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, if a plaintiff won't accept a trial court's reduction of an excessive jury award, the court can order a new trial.

The court agreed with the defendants, but only up to a point. The court agreed that six-figure awards for emotional distress are often found to be excessive, but noted that there is no bright line test prohibiting such awards per se. The cases are very fact-specific. What is important is that the damages award be proportional to the plaintiff's injury. In theory, emotional distress damages can be proved solely through a plaintiff's self-serving testimony, but conclusory statements are not enough. If a plaintiff is going to rely solely on his own testimony, he must reasonably and sufficiently explain the circumstances of his distress.

Read the rest of the article at the Virginia Business Litigation Lawyer blog.

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