A remittitur is a court order that can have one of two effects. In the first sense, the order is used to reduce an award of damages because the judge believes that the award is too high. In the second sense, a remittitur returns a case to a trial court from an appellate court so that the matter can be heard again in the trial court. In both cases, the word refers to sending something back.
In civil cases, juries have some flexibility in determining awards once they have determined which party in the case is liable for an event. The party bringing suit usually files for damages in a specific amount and the jury may choose to award the amount requested, to award more, or to award less. A remittitur occurs when the jury awards too much and the judge reduces the damages.
This must be decided as a matter of law, not simply in the judge's opinion. If there are limits on awards of damages, the jury is compelled to respect those limits, even if it privately believes that someone should receive more. A judge can issue a remittitur when damages are challenged or the judge believes that it would be advised. Conversely, some legal systems also allow a judge to issue an additur, in which the award is increased.
The remittitur eliminates the need to hold a new trial to arrive at a more reasonable award of damages. The plaintiff in the suit may accept the award as offered, or may ask for a retrial. Retrials may be requested if there is a belief that the remittitur is unfair or if the circumstances of the case have changed and a higher award might actually be appropriate. Allowing the plaintiff to request a retrial ensures that rights are not violated by issuing a new decision without the consent of the jury or the parties involved.
When a case reaches an appellate court, one of the outcomes that can be reached is an order for retrial. However, once the case reaches the appellate level, it is outside the jurisdiction of trial courts. Thus, the judge is required to issue a remittitur in order to send the case back to the lower court and give the trial court jurisdiction over the case. This is done when a judge believes that a case was tried improperly and that the lower court needs to try the case again to arrive at a new outcome.