E. Jean Carroll’s $83.3 million verdict in Trump defamation case could be reduced, experts say

It’s a long way to payday for former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll in her $83.3 million damages verdict in her defamation lawsuit against Donald Trump, legal experts say.

The appeals process — likely an uphill battle for the former president — can be a protracted undertaking, and a judge or the two parties themselves could reduce the monetary damages to avoid further litigation delays and frustrations, they say.

Emory University law professor David Partlett said Mr. Trump’s lawyer could have argued that the jury was motivated unduly by passion and that the damages are not reasonable. Such a claim normally is introduced via a motion at trial, and Mr. Partlett stressed that making that claim on appeal could be difficult.

“You can always argue on appeal, but the further you get from the trial, the more difficult it becomes,” he said.  “I don’t think Trump is going to get any comfort in an appeal.”

“The best they could do is to try to negotiate it,” Mr. Partlett said of Mr. Trump’s attempt to reduce the $83.3 million ruling for damages.

Post-trial motions usually are filed in this type of litigation, in which the judge could be asked to reduce the damages. If the judge were to agree, the plaintiff could choose to settle for the reduced damages or have another trial.

It’s unclear if Mr. Trump or Ms. Carroll would agree to settle.

A federal jury in New York last month awarded Ms. Carroll $83.3 million in punitive and compensatory damages for defamatory comments Mr. Trump made in 2019 about her claim that he had raped her in a Manhattan fitting room in the 1990s.

A different federal jury in May awarded Ms. Carroll $5 million in damages after finding the former president liable for sex abuse, but not rape, and defamation for comments he made in 2022.

Mr. Trump is reportedly searching for a new attorney to appeal the verdict.

Christina Tilly, a law professor at the University of Iowa, said although the damages of $83.3 million is a large sum, it may not be large enough for a constitutional challenge.

Mr. Trump’s attorneys could try to argue that the damage amount was an attempt to sort of gag him and create a chilling effect going forward, she said, adding that’s not necessarily a winning argument.

Ms. Tilly said the case is difficult to compare to others. If it had been tried in a different state, maybe one more friendly to the former president, the verdict and award would have been different, she said.

“The defendant is not only a former president, but a former president who is sort of an avatar for a lot of division socially and politically in the country,” Ms. Tilly said, adding that “for sure” could have activated jurors.

Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, said Mr. Trump could make an argument of a due process violation when it comes to the high punitive damages and First Amendment claims that he should be able to defend himself, since some of the defamatory statements were made in response to Ms. Carroll’s claims and the litigation.

“If this were a normal defendant, even a normal billionaire defendant, then I would be surprised. But Trump has become a punching bag, and I refer to it as ‘Trump law,’” he said. “Whether we are talking about the criminal suits or the civil suits or just screaming from the media and the left, it seems like that the legal standards that are applied to Trump are not really applied to anybody else.”

Lyrissa Lidsky, a law professor at the University of Florida, said punitive damages tend to be viewed as unconstitutional when they are more than a single-digit ratio of the compensatory damages based on Supreme Court precedent from a 2003 case. 

In this case, the $65 million in punitive damages and the $18.3 million in compensatory damages produce a 3.6-to-1 ratio, making an unconstitutional argument an uphill battle based on that Supreme Court precedent.

“The punitive damages are less than four times the amount of the compensatory award,” Ms. Lidsky said. “The ratio in this case does not meet that criterion.”

But Mr. Levey said the single-digit ratio isn’t dispositive and doesn’t necessarily mean Mr. Trump couldn’t win on appeal, or get the high court to weigh in.

“I don’t think it is conservative bias at all to say the damages are likely to be reduced by a court,” he said.

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