A JUROR’S EXPERIENCE AT TRIAL
– From the Attorneys at Broussard & Hart
Most American citizens have little first-hand knowledge of the American justice system. Few have had the opportunity to actually serve on a jury. What they know about serving on a jury comes from what they see on TV, usually in the context of a criminal case.
But a personal injury or wrongful death case is not a criminal case. It is a civil case. Even if the injuries were very bad and the person or company was very negligent, no one will be sentenced to prison.
The Search for Truth
Every trial is a search for the truth. It began with an injured person seeking answers. “How could this have happened to me? How will I ever be able to recover?” Then lawyers started looking for the truth, talking to witnesses and experts and gathering evidence. It ends with you, the juror, deciding that the evidence shows more truth on one side than the other.
Certainty and Doubt
“Beyond a reasonable doubt”… that’s the instruction you hear given to a TV jury, but that’s a criminal case. A civil case is quite different. In a civil case, you are only asked to decide if there is a 51% probability that this is what occurred. There is plenty of room for doubt when all you have to do is decide questions on the basis of “more likely than not.” For example:
- Is it more likely that the car swerved into the lane where the motorcyclist was driving? Or that the motorcyclist was not paying attention?
- Is it more likely that the truck parked illegally on the roadside at night was not properly lit, with markers alongside it? Or that the driver of the family van had fallen asleep at the wheel when he plowed into the back of the 18-wheeler?
Your job as a juror in a serious injury or wrongful death case might be to decide which of these is more likely to have occurred, given the evidence presented. You don’t have to be certain in your decision, just more likely right than wrong.
What Happens at a Personal Injury Trial
A lot has happened before a case gets to a jury trial. All the evidence has been gathered and accepted by the judge. The two sides have tried to negotiate but were unable to arrive at an agreement they found fair. Now it’s come down to you.
1. The first step is jury selection. Each side’s attorneys will assess whether a potential juror is suitable to decide a particular case. They are looking for insights into any prejudices a juror may have that would sway his or her vote regardless of the evidence. For example, does a juror think bikers are troublemakers? Or do they or their family members ride motorcycles?
2. Opening Statements – After the jury is sworn, each side gives an opening statement. During opening statements, each side will provide a “road map” of what evidence they will present.
3. When the trial begins, the plaintiff (the side of the injured person) presents first. The attorney will present eyewitness testimony, accident and medical experts, and other evidence. The lawyer for the injured person must prove two things:
- That the other party was partly or wholly responsible for the injuries or accident, and
- That the injured person or family suffered a loss
4. The defense presents next. They will have their own evidence and experts.
5. At any time, either side can object to evidence or statements. It’s not uncommon for the defense to have objections to evidence. However, it’s up to the judge to decide what the jury hears, not the defense.
6. Rebuttal: Each side has an opportunity to rebut what the other side has said.
7. Closing Arguments: Each side will give a final closing argument, summarizing what they believe the evidence shows.
8. Instructions to the Jury: The judge will wrap up this portion of the trial with instructions for the jury about the law and what the jury should consider when making their decision. Then you will “retire” to another room for deliberations.
9. Jury Deliberations: The first step in deliberations is usually to elect a foreman who will speak for the jury when a verdict has been reached. Then jurors can discuss the case with each other, but not with persons outside the jury. It’s important to know that jury deliberations are private. You have every right, as a juror, to stick to your convictions.
10. Verdict: When you return to court, the foreman will read off the jury’s decision. If a decision could not be reached, the trial will be called a mistrial and it will start again, with a new jury.
If you are called to serve as a juror, you should consider it an honor and privilege. Trial by jury is one of our fundamental rights. Without the dedication and participation of the men and women who make up the juries across this land, the American legal system could not work. Your participation makes democracy and justice possible.
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