If you’ve ever watched a courtroom drama or read a legal thriller, then you’re probably familiar with a jury trial. But you might be surprised to learn that many civil trials in the United States are actually tried in front of judges.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the differences between jury trials and bench trials. We’ll also help you decide which is better for your personal injury case.
What’s a jury trial?
In a jury trial, a jury of your peers (12, 8, or 6 people depending on the state and the nature of your case) makes the final decision after hearing all the evidence.
The judge is present in the courtroom during a jury trial, but only for purposes of controlling the presentation of evidence, deciding any legal issues that might arise, and providing instructions to the jury. It’s the responsibility of the jury, as the “fact finder,” to ultimately decide which party’s version of the facts to believe and who wins or loses.
What’s a bench trial?
In a bench trial, the judge makes the final decision in your case after hearing all the evidence. Generally, the judge who proceeds over the trial is the same judge who was assigned to your case when it was filed.
Are jury trials more common than bench trials?
The United States doesn’t do a great job of keeping statistics regarding jury and bench trials. However, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study in 2005 and found that:
- A jury decided 70% of civil trials
- Plaintiffs won 66% of bench trials and 53% of jury trials
- Jury trials lasted 2 days longer than bench trials (on average)
- The average damages awarded were similar for bench trials and jury trials
Can I choose between a jury trial and a bench trial?
Unfortunately, you don’t always get to choose whether you have a jury trial or a bench trial.
The Seventh Amendment of the US Constitution grants the right to a jury trial in lawsuits involving money damages. But the seventh amendment only applies to federal courts.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of states have adopted some form of this right in their state constitutions. As a result, you’ll most likely have an opportunity to choose between a jury trial and a bench trial so long as your case involves financial damages.
Different states have different procedures for choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial. In most states, a party has to make a written demand for a jury trial at the time the case is called to be set for trial. If neither party makes a written demand, the case defaults to a bench trial.
Which type of trial should I choose?
Choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial is a strategic decision that depends on the specific facts of your case. With that in mind, here are 2 general beliefs that most civil attorneys share:
- Juries tend to be more sympathetic to injured plaintiffs than judges
- Juries tend to award more damages than judges
Plaintiffs in personal injury cases usually exercise their right to a jury trial.
With that being said, there are times when a bench trial is a better strategic decision. For example, in a case where the plaintiff is unsympathetic and the legal theory they’re putting forward is complex and hard for the average person to grasp, a jury trial might not be preferred by the plaintiff’s attorney.
Here are some generalizations to consider when choosing between a jury trial and a bench trial.
|Jury Trials v. Bench Trials|
|Tend to be more sympathetic to injured plaintiffs||Tend to be less sympathetic to injured plaintiffs|
|Are more likely to be confused by complex legal issues and intricate facts||Are less likely to be confused by complex legal issues and intricate facts|
|Often take more time than bench trials||Often take less time than jury trials|
|May have personal biases||May have political biases (such as an inclination toward corporations), especially in states where judges are elected officials|
|Are more likely to award punitive damages||Are less likely to award punitive damages|
|Are more likely to provide high damage awards||Are less likely to provide high damage awards|
|Are less sympathetic to self-represented litigants||Are more sympathetic to self-represented litigants|
Keep in mind that the choice between a jury trial and a bench trial is exactly the sort of strategic decision you’re paying your lawyer to make. Not only will your lawyer be able to make a decision based on the specific facts of your case, but your lawyer will also be familiar with the prior decisions of your specific judge and the tendencies of the average juror in your county.