I’m spending a little time today preparing for a jury trial in a couple of weeks, and due to some circumstances, it got me thinking about the things about a case that a jury doesn’t get to know.
These issues sometimes come up when talking to new clients. One of the common comments I hear is, “If the jury just gets to hear about X then that will really help our case.”
But many times, the jury may not get to hear about X.
There are a number of rules that limit what information we get to tell a jury. Sometimes the rules exist to prevent the jury from hearing information that courts believe is irrelevant, and sometimes it is to prevent the jury from hearing information that is deemed to be too prejudicial to one side or the other. Regardless of the reason for the rule, there are a number of limits. Some of the more popular limits are listed below.
1. Insurance. In most personal injury cases, the defendant (the party that did something wrong and is being sued) has insurance to pay for the lawyer and that will pay for any judgment rendered against the defendant. However, one of the most long-standing rules is that the parties can’t tell the jury that the defendant has insurance, that insurance might cover the jury’s award, or anything similar.
2. Attorneys’ fees. In most personal injury cases, the plaintiff (the party that is injured and filed the lawsuit) has to pay his or her attorney out of the jury’s award. And yet, we’re never allowed to tell the jury this fact.
3. The defendant’s history. In many cases, the defendant may have a history that our clients think is relevant. For example, if it is a car wreck case, the driver may have a bad driving record with prior wrecks or tickets. Or, the other side may have a criminal history or a history of alcohol or drug abuse. In most cases, the jury never gets to hear about these “prior bad acts” (as we call them).
4. Settlement offers or negotiations. Sometimes clients think that we can tell a jury about settlement offers from defendants and that the jury will use those as a “floor” for an award. But in most instances, we can’t tell a jury about settlement negotiations, mediation, or other settlement discussions.
5. Effect of jury answers. The way our system works, the jury doesn’t decide who wins or who loses. Instead, the jury is asked a series of questions. But the jury doesn’t get to know what their answers mean, and we’re not allowed to tell them how their answers might affect the ultimate award. This was really demonstrated in a case of ours a few years ago. In a business case, we obtaned a jury verdict that included an $8,000,000.00 punitive damage award. But due to tort reform legislation, that recovery was limited to $250,000.00. When we told the jury about it afterwards, they were floored. They had been trying to punish the defendant for their egregious conduct, but the result ended up being a drop in the bucket for this large company.
My list could go on and on. There are any number of additional things a jury doesn’t get to hear about, but these are a biggies.
And as I said, these are only the general rules, and in some cases, there might be ways for attorneys to legitimately get the right to tell the jury about some of thse items. In fact, I often tell people that one of the advantages of hiring an experienced personal injury attorney is that they might know tricks that increase the likelihood that you get to tell the jury these things. That is especially true for trucking accident cases.
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