Early this month The Dallas Morning News ran a story called, “Civil Jury Trials Plummet in Texas” that mentions some staggering statistics on the decline of civil juries. While the average person might still think most lawsuits end with compelling arguments before a group of twelve of your fellow citizens, the reality is that juries are quickly disappearing from our trials.
For example, in 1996, 1 in every 48 lawsuits filed ended in a jury verdict. By comparison, last year only 1 in 183 lawsuits went before a jury. These numbers are even more significant because while the number of jury trials has decreased by a third, the number of lawsuits has increased by about 25%. These days only 20% of all civil disputes are resolved by juries.
So why are jury trials disappearing? The article makes several good points. It identifies these major factors: tort reform, Texas Supreme Court rulings, legal costs and lawyers’ willingness to try cases in front of juries.
Caps, Courts, Costs and Cowardice
Now I’ve already written a lot on tort reform, but I don’t think I can stress enough how much it effects civil trials. Tort reform changes have made it much more challenging for the injured parties to win a lawsuit. It has simultaneously ensured that even after presenting a flawless case, awards may not cover all the damages.
In addition to the problems caused by tort reform, the Texas Supreme Court has made changes in how the law itself works in terms of civil trials. What this comes down to is that important decisions that the jury used to be trusted with are now at the judge’s discretion. Here’s another look at the numbers: In 1996 only 3,488 cases were resolved by judges in motions for summary judgments, but by 2010 it shot up to 5,597 cases. Begging the question, how many will be decided that way this year? Will it continue to increase through 2012?
Changes from the Top
The Texas Supreme Court and along with the appellate courts are sending a message – jury verdicts are less valid than decisions made on the bench. Unfortunately, there are many judges who seem to agree with this.
One of my favorite quotes from the article was from Judge Molberg who stands behind an individual’s right for a trial. He told The Dallas Morning News this, “Binding mandatory arbitration has been driving cases out of our court system and toward rent-a-judges and tort reform has discouraged or impeded people’s right to jury trials. Some people may think that is a good thing, but it means that real people are not getting their claims heard — at least not by a jury of their peers.”
Court Fees Out of Control
It’s not only about attitudes and political philosophies; some of this comes down to nickels and dimes. Or in this case, hundreds even thousands of dollars in legal costs. The expensive process of discovery compounded with high court fees can be debilitating for law firms and even small companies. Ultimately, those costs are passed down to the clients, plaintiffs and defendants both, who deserve to have their day in court.
Facing a Jury
This all asks the question – what about lawyers? How do we feel about being in front of a jury in Texas courts? Houston attorney David Beck comments in the article that there are high-ranking lawyers out there in big firms who have never really tried a case before a jury.
Trying a case in front of a jury is still one of the most important experiences an attorney can have. A jury trial should never be something a lawyer shies away from. A decision to take a trial to a jury should be made only with the client’s best interests at heart. Of course you have to factor in legal strategies and costs, but lawyers have a responsibility not to settle solely based on their own fear of a jury verdict.
Upholding the Right to Have a Jury
A right to a jury of our peers is a core American value. It’s a founding principle in our government and it should be just as highly valued today as it was when Thomas Jefferson included it in the Declaration of Independence. It’s up to all of us to ensure that civil juries aren’t a thing of the past.
Category: Latest Legal News