I’m resigned to the fact that most people learn about the legal system, and the legal system does a lousy job of explaining how juries come up with decisions in civil cases.
The confusion comes in two forms. First, in Texas, at least, juries don’t necessarily “decide” who should win or what amount should be awarded. Instead, they answer a series of questions that are posed to them, and then the Judge takes those answers to come up with a judgment. In fact, juries are specifically not supposed to know what their answers mean.
Additionally, people have questions about what we get to ask juries to award them. There are some defined areas that we get to ask for (outlined below), but we don’t just get to ask for those items — we have to present sufficient evidence before the judge will even ask the jury about most of these areas. I explain that a little below.
So what do those questions look like?
Generally, in a simple car wreck or personal injury case, the jury is asked three questions. (And below, the “plaintiff” is the party that was injured and filed the lawsuit. The “defendant” is the one being sued.)
Question One: Did the negligence of either of the parties listed below proximately cause the wreck (or occurrence) in question?
Answer “yes” or “no” for each.
The jury answers that question. If the jury answers “no” for the defendant, then the plaintiff loses, and the case is over. If the jury answers “yes” to both parties, then the jury is told to answer the second question. If the jury answers “no” for the plaintiff, but “yes” for the defendant, then the jury is told to skip question 2 and go to question 3.
Question Two: For each person that you find caused or contributed to the wreck, find the percentage of responsibility attributable to each:
This question is very important. If the jury finds that the plaintiff contributed to the wreck, then the damages (found in question 3) are reduced by that percent. For example, if the jury answers 10% for Plaintiff and 90% for Defendant, then the judge takes the total amount in answer 3 and reduces it by 10%, and that is the eventual award to the plaintiff. If the plaintiff’s percent is higher than 50%, then the entire claim is barred, and the plaintiff loses without recovering anything.
Question Three: What sum of money would compensate the Plaintiff for her injuries that resulted from the occurrence in question?
Medical care expenses incurred in the past ___________________________
Medical care expenses incurred in the future _______________________
Pain and mental anguish in the past _______________________
Pain and mental anguish in the future _______________________
Loss of earning capacity in the past ____________________________
Loss of earning capacity in the future_______________________
Physical impairment in the past _______________________
Physical impairment in the future _______________________
Disfigurement in the past _______________________
Disfigurement in the future _______________________
These numbers are totaled to get the jury’s award.
But an injured victim doesn’t just get to ask for these damages; evidence has to be presented to justify the damages. For example, for medical care expenses in the past, the victim has to present evidence that the expenses were related to the wreck. Most people understand that.
But for medical expenses in the future, it gets a little more tricky. Clients often say something similar to, “well, I don’t know that I’ll need a surgery, but it’s a possibility.” To even get to submit the spot for medical care in the future, we must have some type of testimony from a doctor that it isn’t just possible, but that you’ll have that surgery (or other care) “more likely than not” and then what the cost of that care will likely be.
Similarly, for most future damages, a doctor must testify about how long a problem will last so a jury can have a reasonable basis to make its decision.
So those are the questions asked.
Assuming the judge upholds the findings, the amount in question three (after any reductions for plaintiff’s fault in question two) will be the amount of the verdict.
For more complicated cases, the questions can be modified, additional parties can be added, or additional questions are asked, but this basic structure is probably accurate for 95% of the car wreck or other personal injury claims filed in Texas.
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