THE RIGHT TO JURY TRIAL
Groucho Marx said, “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.” All kidding aside, for business owners, when are jury trials available and are they always beneficial?
The Seventh Amendment guarantees a right to jury trial in civil suits where the value of the controversy exceeds 20 dollars – about $550 adjusted for inflation. Similarly, the Nebraska Constitution provides the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate. By Nebraska statute, a party in most cases, even a business entity, may demand a jury trial. Some examples include contract disputes, the value of attorney services, a contested garnishment, and liability and damages in personal injury cases.
Nebraska courts have also found no right to jury trials in equitable actions, such as enjoining defendants, workmen’s compensation cases, foreclosure actions, contempt proceedings, the removal of guardian, probate proceedings, specific performance cases, etc. (Also note jury trials are rejected in criminal cases arising from local ordinances, traffic infractions, and misdemeanors carrying a maximum sentence of 6 months or less imprisonment.)
Where the right to a jury trial is provided, a party may waive his right; however, if a jury is paneled, it will have exclusive power to determine any controverted facts and, as instructed by the judge, apply the law to the facts.
How jurors reach their determinations is generally not subject to review, unless a juror: 1) was exposed to extraneous evidence; 2) received improper influence (bribe or threat); or 3) made a mistake on the verdict form. Thus, while uncommon, jurors are at liberty to ignore judges’ instructions to follow their conscience, known as jury nullification.
There are good reasons to believe a jury may be more sympathetic than a judge, even when contrary to law. I once polled a juror after an employment discrimination trial, who said, “We felt sorry for the defendant, who didn’t have any education and couldn’t find a job. We didn’t want her to have to work again.” You cannot separate emotion from a jury.
A tremendous amount of research has been conducted whether certain persons make more sympathetic jurors than others, based on gender, religion, or level or education. Attorneys work with clients to determine whether it’s the clients’ best interests to waive a jury trial, or to determine what types of juror demographics are beneficial for their case. Attorneys also work with clients to select the most beneficial jury instructions, and assist clients with both peremptory challenges and challenges for cause, to rid a jury panel of potentially problematic jurors.
Finally, even when a jury verdict is reached, it is not beyond scrutiny. The Court may set aside a verdict so clearly excessive or inadequate as to induce the belief that it must have been found through passion, prejudice or mistake.
If you are facing litigation, talk to your attorney about your trial strategy, including picking the jury or waiving jury trial.