Plainly stated, a bench trial is one in which a jury is not seated, and the case at issue is presented in its entirety to a judge alone. Generally speaking, civil cases proceed as bench trials unless one of the parties makes a specific request for a jury. In a bench trial, the presiding judge must fulfill two distinct roles, one of which is to resolve questions of law and of the admissibility of evidence, and the second is to determine how convincing witness testimony and other evidence is in proving the allegations made. While there may be a number of reasons why a party to a lawsuit may prefer a bench trial over a trial by jury, in most personal injury matters, juries are in fact requested. However, understanding the pros and cons of each can help litigants make informed decisions about the direction of their case.
How Bench Trials Work
In all trials, judges are responsible for overseeing the operation of the courtroom and ensuring the smooth facilitation of justice. In a jury trial, a judge will be responsible for deciding questions of law that arise, such as what law is applicable to the case, whether certain types of evidence will be allowed, maintaining order and ruling on objections from both parties. He or she will ultimately leave it to the jury to determine credibility and assess damages, if any. In a bench trial, the judge must strive to achieve order as well as impartiality, but do so knowing also that he or she will have to rule on the matter as a whole.
Why Personal Injury Cases Are Generally Heard By Juries
There are some instances in which an attorney may feel that a bench trial is a better choice than trial by jury. This may be the case when the issues involved are extraordinarily complex and not easily grasped by a jury of randomly selected laypeople. Bench trials may also be preferred when the party requesting it is strongly disliked or part of an unpopular group. Because trials of this type are commonly perceived as beneficial to defendants, insurance attorneys often favor them so as to steer clear of sympathetic juries who may be heavily swayed by an injury victim's emotional story.
Personal injury victims tend to avoid bench trials and opt for jury trials because of the different experiences and perspectives the two triers of fact tend to represent. Whereas a judge will likely be focused on the law of negligence, apportionment of fault and similar considerations, juries can more easily be moved by emotion, strong storytelling and a natural willingness to render aid to victims. Furthermore, it has been shown that juries are more disposed to awarding much larger damage amounts than judges, again due to their propensity to relate to tales of suffering and their desire to punish the responsible party.
Seasoned Guidance From Day One
Prospective plaintiffs should make no mistake. Trial by jury is by no means a guarantee of success. The fact is that each case is unique and the insights of an experienced personal injury advocate can make all the difference when it comes to crafting sound trial strategy. If you have suffered harm at the hands of another and wish to embark on your quest for justice, attorney Jeremy Rosenthal is ready to help. For a no-cost consultation, contact us at 303.825.2223.