Trial By Jury

I recently tried a civil jury case to verdict. Given the pressure for settlement of cases, most lawsuits filed never proceed to jury trial, much less a verdict. While we usually represent civil plaintiffs, in this case I represented a defendant. The trial itself was brief, 1 1/2 days. Our 12 person civil jury began deliberations at mid-day of the second day of trial. After about 2 hours, the jury returned with a question, asking the Judge to re-read the jury instructions as to how liability is defined and determined.

At the end of a jury trial, the trial judge “charges” the jury, that is the trial judge reads the points of law to the jury. This jury charge is the legal road map for the jury. The jury then determines the facts of the case and applies the law. In this case, the jury poses questions about fault, liability, and asked the trial judge to re-charge them, which the trial judge did.

Two hours later, at the end of the day, there was still no verdict. The jury sent a message to the trial judge informing him that despite four votes being taken, a ten person majority was not achieved. Civil verdicts in Pennsylvania courts require a 10 out of 12 vote for a verdict to be reached. The trial judge dismissed the jury for the day and ordered them to report the following morning.

The next morning, day three of the trial, the jury reported at 9:30 and deliberated until about 11:30 before returning a verdict. The jury had voted 10-2 for my client, the defendant.

After the trial, I had the opportunity to speak to three of the jurors. They were honest in their statements. The case did not turn upon the skill or eloquence of my well prepared adversary or me. The case turned on 12 people determining what the facts of the case were and applying the law.

Interestingly, the initial vote was 5 for the defendant and 7 for the plaintiff. Over the course of almost a full day of the jury deliberations, the 5 pro defense jurors convinced 5 of the 7 pro plaintiff jurors to see things their way, resulting in the 10-2 verdict. Upon learning this, I was in awe of the dynamic among 12 people who had never met before.

The take away from this case: this jury took their oath seriously and deliberated with all of the back and forth required under the circumstances. The jury took their time and applied their respective backgrounds to reach a verdict. The jurors (regardless of the outcome of the case) are applauded for their service. Our system of trial by jury functions properly only when jurors are open minded.

Should you be summoned for jury duty, please approach this experience seriously and impartially. Your legal claim could depend on a jury at some time.

– Allan Opsitnick

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Author: opsitnickslaw

Allan J. Opsitnick J.D. and B.A. Degrees, University of Pittsburgh

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