Groucho Marx said, “I was married by a judge. I should have asked
for a jury.” All kidding aside, for business owners, when are jury
trials available and are they always beneficial?
The Seventh Amendment guarantees a right to jury trial in civil suits where
the value of the controversy exceeds 20 dollars – about $550 adjusted
for inflation. Similarly, the Nebraska Constitution provides the right
of trial by jury shall remain inviolate. By Nebraska statute, a party
in most cases, even a business entity, may demand a jury trial. Some examples
include contract disputes, the value of attorney services, a contested
garnishment, and liability and damages in personal injury cases.
Nebraska courts have also found no right to jury trials in equitable actions,
such as enjoining defendants, workmen's compensation cases, foreclosure
actions, contempt proceedings, the removal of guardian, probate proceedings,
specific performance cases, etc. (Also note jury trials are rejected in
criminal cases arising from local ordinances, traffic infractions, and
misdemeanors carrying a maximum sentence of 6 months or less imprisonment.)
Where the right to a jury trial is provided, a party may waive his right;
however, if a jury is paneled, it will have exclusive power to determine
any controverted facts and, as instructed by the judge, apply the law
to the facts.
How jurors reach their determinations is generally not subject to review,
unless a juror: 1) was exposed to extraneous evidence; 2) received improper
influence (bribe or threat); or 3) made a mistake on the verdict form.
Thus, while uncommon, jurors are at liberty to ignore judges’ instructions
to follow their conscience, known as jury nullification.
There are good reasons to believe a jury may be more sympathetic than a
judge, even when contrary to law. I once polled a juror after an employment
discrimination trial, who said, “We felt sorry for the defendant,
who didn’t have any education and couldn’t find a job. We
didn’t want her to have to work again.” You cannot separate
emotion from a jury.
A tremendous amount of research has been conducted whether certain persons
make more sympathetic jurors than others, based on gender, religion, or
level or education. Attorneys work with clients to determine whether it’s
the clients’ best interests to waive a jury trial, or to determine
what types of juror demographics are beneficial for their case. Attorneys
also work with clients to select the most beneficial jury instructions,
and assist clients with both peremptory challenges and challenges for
cause, to rid a jury panel of potentially problematic jurors.
Finally, even when a jury verdict is reached, it is not beyond scrutiny.
The Court may set aside a verdict so clearly excessive or inadequate as
to induce the belief that it must have been found through passion, prejudice
If you are facing litigation, talk to your attorney about your trial strategy,
including picking the jury or waiving jury trial.