Will My Case Go Before a Judge or Jury?

There are many factors that determine whether your case will proceed before a judge or a jury. Many states have a threshold that the alleged damages must meet in order to give the plaintiff the right to request a jury. This is also known as the “amount in controversy.” For instance, if the case does not allege damages of at least $50,000, then the plaintiff may not be entitled to a jury.

Even if the case alleges damages of more than $50,000, (in the example above), the plaintiff is not required to request a trial by jury. If the plaintiff does not request a trial by jury, then the case may proceed to trial before the judge. However, if the amount in controversy meets the threshold for a jury trial, and the plaintiff does not request a jury, the defense has the constitutional right to request a trial by jury. However, the defense usually has only a limited time after service of the complaint or petition for damages to request a jury. Otherwise, both parties are deemed to want a judge or bench trial.

Some states also prohibit the request for a jury when the state or a political subdivision of the state is involved as a party. In such instances, the plaintiff is not entitled to a jury even if he wants one and the amount in controversy is sufficient. Some states allow the state or its political subdivision to waive its right to a judge trial and request a jury.

The demographics of the jurisdiction where the case is pending may dictate whether the plaintiff’s attorney requests a trial by jury. In conservative jurisdictions, bench trials may be more favorable. In more liberal jurisdictions, the plaintiff’s attorney will want to request a trial by jury.

In addition to the demographics of the jurisdiction in which the case is pending, other factors influence the decision to request a trial by judge or jury. The background of the plaintiff and other witnesses is one factor. The philosophical and political background of the judge involved may also be a factor.

The amount of potential damages and the nature and permanence of the injuries may also be important factors. Evidentiary issues involved in the case may also have a bearing on the decision. If the judge excludes evidence from the jury, it may be better to have a jury try the case. In making the decision to exclude the evidence, the judge must hear the evidence. Thus, he will know the evidence even if he is not allowed to “formally” consider it.

Juries are not allowed to hear certain evidence which the judge may know. For instance, most states do not allow evidence of a settlement with another party (in a case involving multiple defendants) to be heard by the jury. Thus, if a settlement with another party has been made, a jury trial request may be in order.

There is usually not one factor that definitively determines whether your attorney will request a trial by jury or judge. Only through experience with many of the above factors involved in your jurisdiction can your attorney make the best decision.