Former President Donald Trump has vowed to appeal journalist E. Jean Carroll’s major legal victory over him on Jan. 26, 2024, when a Manhattan jury determined that Trump must pay her US$83.3 million for repeatedly defaming Carroll.
The jury awarded Carroll US$7.3 million for damage to her reputation, $11 million for emotional harm and $65 million for punitive damages.
Another jury in the New York City borough previously held the former president liable for sexual abuse and defamation against the writer in May 2023, and awarded her $5 million in damages. Trump allegedly sexually abused Carroll in a department store dressing room in 1996.
But even as Trump says he is looking for new lawyers to help him appeal the jury’s latest decision to make him pay Carroll tens of millions of dollars, does he still need to pay Carroll some money in the meantime?
The Conversation U.S. spoke with civil procedure scholar Jayne Ressler to understand what happens now that the jury has announced its award to Carroll.
What exactly does ‘punitive damages’ mean?
Punitive damages are intended to really punish and deter a person from doing whatever acts are in question – in this case, continuing to speak publicly about and defame Carroll. They are also meant to send a message to other people – that if you act like this, you are going to be in trouble, too.
Punitive damages are separate from compensatory damages – meaning, the amount of compensation that Carroll should be rewarded because of direct harm to her.
With punitive damages, a jury is basically saying, “What you did is so egregious that we are going to punish you above and beyond what the actual compensatory amount is.”
Does Trump need to pay these damages immediately?
Punitive damages are almost always appealed. Defendants don’t say, “Cool, here is a check for whatever amount.” It is a long appeal process that happens with these damages.
Trump has said he will appeal the decision, and he will likely first argue that the compensatory damages are too high. He will likely then argue that punitive damages should not be awarded, and second, that the punitive damage amount is excessive and is based on animus against him.
He doesn’t have to pay anything until the process is done.
How does a jury reach a specific amount when determining punitive damages?
There is no exact accounting behind the dollar amount of these damages in general. That’s different from damages for something like a breach of contract on the purchase of a house, for example, where the complainant comes with a specific amount of money lost if a sale was agreed upon but did not go through.
When you are punishing someone, it is not really based on someone’s assets and how much money they have, as much as it is about the egregiousness of what the person has done and how much money it would take for this particular person to stop.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not set out an exact ratio to say when punitive damages are too excessive, in accordance with compensatory damages. But it has suggested that there should be some correlation between the compensatory damages and the punitive damages.
Assuming that Trump reaches the end of an appeals process and is still ordered to pay this full $83.3 million, how would that be enforced?
If Trump’s appeal is turned down, he could simply pay the judgment. Or the next thing he could do is say he doesn’t have the assets to pay.
The court would then have to do a deep dive into what his assets are. If the court determines he does have the assets and he still does not pay, he would be held in contempt of court. That has already happened to Trump in other civil cases. It means he could be fined or given actual jail time. Or, if he says he doesn’t have the funds and he clearly does, then the court can seize his assets.
With Trump in particular, who is well known for drawing out legal processes, the appeals process could take a long time. It just depends. It could take years.
Are there downsides to awarding such a high amount of punitive damages?
For the average person to see something like $83.3 million, it can make you say, “Wow, what kind of court system is this?” No one is saying that Carroll was harmed at an amount that is equivalent to $83.3 million. And the $65 million of punitive damages, in particular, is not about how much Carroll was harmed. It is about punishing Trump’s bad behavior and getting him to stop doing it.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Jayne Ressler, Brooklyn Law School
Jayne Ressler does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.