“A Jury of Your Peers?” – The Pros and Cons of Jury Trials

So far in this edition of the Railroad Injury Newsletter, we have discussed the various laws that have been designed to protect your rights as a Railroad employee. In our previous newsletter (Volume I, Issue IV) we provided you with a quick and easy roadmap through the litigation process. The final stage of that litigation process deserves a closer look.

The jury trial lies at the heart of the American legal system. It is a right provided by the U.S. Constitution. It utilizes members of the community where each case is filed to serve as judges of the facts during a trial. So, what are the benefits and challenges of a jury trial? As discussed below, you will see that many of the benefits of a jury trial also present potential challenges—a true double-edged sword. However, careful planning, thorough preparation, and a polished trial strategy and presentation can help minimize the potential downside while maximizing the potential benefits. This is where your choice of attorney comes into play, which is perhaps the most important decision in getting the best outcome at trial. The alternative to a jury trial is a “bench” trial, which is a trial before a single judge.

Benefits of a Jury Trial:

Jurors are your peers. A jury is meant to consist of your “peers,” or a cross-section of individuals from the community. This means that corporations cannot be on a jury. Instead, a jury is selected randomly from people in your community. Some will be blue-collar workers, others white-collar executives, unemployed people, stay-at-home spouses, and students. In fact, almost any adult can be required to report for jury service, including individuals with disabilities that can be accommodated, such as with amplifying headphones for those hard of hearing. Although there is no guarantee that a jury will side with a person over a railroad corporation, the shared human element between an injured worker and a jury is often compelling.

Jurors tend to have more empathy. Juries tend to be more compassionate and empathetic than, for example, a judge who has been trained to follow the law over his/her emotions. When presenting a case before a jury, an effective trial presentation will help jurors understand the full extent of what an injured worker and their family have gone through. An emotionally-driven presentation can help juries relate to the injured worker and tilt the scales in weighing the facts of the case. Even so, juries are instructed that they cannot make decisions based on sympathy alone. An effective presentation at trial can remind the jury that their decisions will have an important impact on human lives. It is natural for a jury to put themselves in the shoes of the injured worker, which can lead to more generous judgments against railroads.

Jury trials are moderated by a judge but decided by the jury. Judges determine what law applies in a case, but juries decide the facts which are in dispute. For example, before a jury trial begins, judges often examine evidence and decide whether it should be kept from the jury based on a legal standard of relevance. By contrast, in a bench trial, the judge decides the law and the facts—which is a lot of power for one person! Additionally, a jury only has one case to decide, whereas judges are responsible for a large docket of other cases which demand their attention. With a jury, there can be a lot of discussion and compromise when making decisions. In some states, like Missouri, you only need 9 out of 12 jurors to reach a decision. It is the job of the judge to help ensure that the jury follows the law. During a trial and at the end, the judge will “instruct” or tell the jury what the law is. For example, the judge will tell the jury that the injured worker has the burden to prove his or her case, and that means determining “which side is more probably correct” on certain issues. During a trial, the lawyer will need to speak to both the judge and the jury at various times and have sufficient skill to be persuasive in making the case.

Challenges of a Trial by Jury:

Juries can be unpredictable. Unlike judges, juries can be more confused by the law and evidence and may make mistakes despite doing their best. This can lead to unpredictable results for both sides. Although this risk is always present, effective trial lawyers can reduce the risk by making their points directly, clearly, and with strong evidence. Lawyers are trained to “KISS” their cases, which means “Keep It Simple Stupid!” Thus, the smart lawyer avoids making a simple issue more complicated than it needs to be.

Juries can be biased. Although jurors usually try to do the right thing, sometimes bias can seep into their decision-making process. A juror’s feelings, past experiences, personal values, and other factors can affect how they view the evidence. This can have damaging effects for both parties in a trial. This is one reason it is critical to hire an attorney with lots of jury trial experience, who has a good personality and communicates well. And the courts have a process for attorneys to identify potential bias before the trial begins. During the jury selection process, potential jurors can be questioned by both sides’ lawyers and the judge. If it becomes clear that a person cannot be fair for any reason, that person can be stricken. Thus, while we try to strike anyone who is pro-railroad, it is also true that the railroad lawyers will try to strike anyone who is obviously against the railroad. This is intended to ensure a fair trial for both sides by individuals who have agreed to keep an open mind.

Jury trials can take longer than a trial by judge. It can take a year or more to finally have your day in front of a jury. And a jury trial can last longer than a bench trial once it gets started. Jury trials are also difficult to coordinate, in that they involve many witnesses, boxes of evidence, and travel arrangements. On the other hand, a trial judge is responsible for dozens of cases at a time and may not have the time to make decisions any quicker than a jury. Typically, a capable lawyer can push a case to trial even when the defendant tries to stall and, at trial, can streamline the evidence. Moreover, a good lawyer will spend many months preparing for trial to help get the best result.

In short, jury trials are an excellent way to tell your story and have regular people—a jury of your peers—decide the outcome. This is a great opportunity, but not without risk. An experienced trial attorney is going to help you navigate the litigation process, up to and including putting on the most compelling case at a jury trial. It is important that you employ an attorney with whom you not only feel confident and comfortable, but also one who is experienced and will zealously fight on your behalf. To that end, we strongly encourage you to contact our nationally-recognized Railroad Injury lawyers who will tirelessly advocate for you. *

*The information contained in this newsletter is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Reading this newsletter and information contained herein does not constitute formation of an attorney-client relationship. Every potential case must be assessed in accordance with its unique facts and circumstances. If you believe you may have a legal claim, please request a free, confidential case evaluation with our team today.