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Deciding Whether to Try Your Case to a Judge or Jury

March 26, 2019

When bringing a personal injury case against someone, you typically prove the four elements of negligence:

  1. The person owed you a duty of care

  2. The person violated that duty of care

  3. That violation of duty resulted in your injury

  4. You sustained actual damages from that injury

When proving each element, you generally have to establish your burden of proof – which is “by a preponderance of the evidence” (something is more likely than not) in a civil case. This is a lower standard than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Nonetheless, the person or people who decide whether you have met that standard of proof is exceptionally important.

In personal injury cases, the body that decides whether the burden of proof has been met is known as the “finder of find” or “fact-finder.” The fact-finder may be composed of a jury of peers or a single judge. When a single judge is the fact-finder, the trial is known as a bench trial. When the fact-finder is a group of peers forming a jury, the trial is known as a jury trial.

Generally, a jury trial is preferential. However, there are certain situations where a bench trial could be advantageous:

  1. Complicated cases. Juries are not composed of legal experts, nor are they comprised of a certain standard of individuals. A jury is a random selection of your peers. In cases where the facts and law may be very complex, and proving an element of your case hinges on a finite matter that even experts struggle with, you will likely prefer a bench trial where a judge may offer a greater depth of understanding.

  2. Cases involving disliked parties. Juries are normal people, and they often have trouble remaining purely objective. Therefore, if you are a party who is disliked by the general populace, you may prefer a bench trial where the judge will not be biased by your public perception.

  3. Cases involving large damages. Similar to the above issue of disliked parties, juries tend to sympathize with injured plaintiffs. The result is that they often give large damages awards that are well beyond what a judge would issue. Therefore, you would prefer to have a judge decide damages if you’re a defendant in a personal injury case.

The three above situations are not specific to plaintiff or defendant, but rather address real concerns for why a bench trial would be preferred in a personal injury case.