Why Trial by Jury is Usually a Better Choice than a Bench Trial

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When it comes time to try a case, there are sometimes a few options. In criminal cases, matters are almost always decided by a jury. But, in civil cases, one can often opt to have either a jury or a judge decide the case. So which is better? Are there any advantages to one over the other?

Why One Might Choose a Bench Trial

A case decided by a judge without the assistance of a jury is often referred to as a “bench trial.” In bench trials, the judge takes on two roles: that of the referee who rules on the admissibility of evidence and decides questions of law, and that of the finder of fact who ultimately determines how much weight to give the testimony of different witnesses and the credibility of the evidence. Some cases must be handled by a judge in a bench trial.

These include cases that present only questions of law or equity (such as divorces, child custody cases, foreclosures, actions for permanent injunctions, and others). Cases that allow the option of a trial by jury usually include those in which the ultimate goal is the payment of money to compensate for injuries or damages.

Some litigators and parties might prefer bench trials if they have a particularly complicated case that they believe may confuse a jury. Bench trials may also be an excellent option for largely unliked parties (such as homeowners associations, insurance companies, or unpopular political organizations). Bench trials tend to have outcomes more favorable to defendants, thus defense attorneys (particularly in insurance defense) often recommend bench trials to their clients to avoid the enormous verdicts juries have sometimes granted to sympathetic injury victims.

Why a Trial by Jury is Usually a Better Choice

For most plaintiffs, a trial by jury (when available) is a better choice for a number of reasons. First, the standard of proof in a civil case is much lower than in a criminal one. While judges have a firmer grasp on the burden of proof and how that burden can shift based on proofs and defenses made throughout the course of a case, juries usually do not. The burden that they usually understand and adhere to is that of a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., that something is more likely than not).

As a result, the vast majority of juries will find plaintiff's have shown a preponderance of the evidence in favor of their position in any case that has survived to the point of going to trial. That makes a plaintiff's job much easier, and allows one to focus more on maximizing the available recovery than dealing with the legal intricacies of every possible defense that might need to be overcome.

Juries also tend to be much easier audiences than judges. Communicating with a jury is more about telling a compelling story. Juries tend to be more interested in assessing fault more as one would analyze the story of a good play or book. They listen to the drama unfold through the arguments and testimony, then decide the case based on who they believe should win under the circumstances. Judges, on the other hand, are much less swayed by the emotional appeal of a case, and tend to decide based on legal nuances and subtler understandings of the law than would ever occur to the average juror. Thus, they may render a totally different verdict than a jury simply because they analyze the case not as a normal lay person, but as a highly trained and experienced legal professional.

Finally, the biggest advantage to a jury trial is the amount that juries tend to award. Juries are much more ruled by their passions than judges, so a particularly compelling story about how a victim suffered injury or harm at the hands of the defendant can lead to a much heftier award than a dispassionate judge would grant. Thus, it is no surprise that the biggest verdicts in US history have all come from jury trials.

Disadvantage of Jury Trials

Of course, a jury trial is not without its pitfalls. It is important to know how to address a jury, how to properly select a panel, and how to avoid a myriad of procedural pitfalls that juries can create. Thus, when pursuing a case, particularly one utilizing a jury, it is critical to have an experienced, licensed attorney.

To find an attorney in your area with experience trying cases in front of juries, visit HG.org and use the lawyer search functions. Remember that jury trials are essentially a mix of highly effective lawyering combined with the drama of a stage production, so finding the right kind of attorney to handle a particular case can be the key to a mediocre recovery and something truly life-changing.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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