The Origins and Implications of Summary Jury Trials in Personal Injury Cases

by Jon R. on April 11, 2013

In the early 1980s, District Judge Thomas D. Lambros devised the Summary Jury Trial (SJT) as a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for cases pending in the Northern District of Ohio.  It was essentially a practice trial lasting no more than one day, and heard before a jury of six chosen via voir dire directly from the venire.  The intent was to provide an opportunity for parties to gauge how well their arguments would play in front of a jury.  At the time, the SJT was not being used in place of a trial, verdicts were not binding, and participation was mandatory.  The logic behind this form of ADR was to encourage settlement based on the SJT jury’s response rather than risk going to a formal, binding trial.  This incarnation of the SJT eventually disappeared from the system, potentially because jurors were mandated to serving as if it was binding even though it was non-binding.  Critics claimed the Court was abusing its authority by using members of the public to facilitate private settlements.

Reemergence of SJT in Personal Injury Cases

The SJT re-emerged in the early 2000s when Charleston County, South Carolina became the first county in the country offering the SJT as alternative to a formal trial.  This format has numerous advantages over the standard trial and is ideal for cases involving minor, non-permanent injuries.

In South Carolina, the SJT format includes a high/low ratio agreed upon by the parties prior to trial.  This benefits both parties because the jury’s award is overridden if the award falls under the low number or above the high number, which is typically policy limits.  This enables plaintiffs and their attorneys to recoup some money for themselves, and the defendant isn’t responsible for any amount above policy limits.

Additionally, the utilization of the SJT can curb expenses for both sides. Testimony is abbreviated, hearsay rules are less stringent, and excerpts from deposition transcripts and medical records can be read at trial, thereby eliminating the need for the presence of witnesses, including expensive medical experts.

One distinct disadvantage is the common practice of scheduling the SJT after discovery has been fully conducted and an actual trial date is imminent.  By this time, the defense has already spent loads of money on attorney’s fees and discovery costs and an insurance adjuster may decide to hedge his or her bets by taking a chance at a formal trial.  The same disadvantage applies to the plaintiff’s attorney because by this point, a lot of time has been spent working the case and although the appeal of receiving some compensation versus none may be attractive, that appeal could be overshadowed by visions of a large jury award of actual and punitive damages.  The risk for both, of course, is that one party will walk away with nothing at a formal trial.

Courses of action

A solution could be to embark on the SJT earlier in the life of the lawsuit.  If a case involves minor injuries, but the parties didn’t settle prior to suit, they might want to consider the SJT format closer to the beginning stages of the suit and agree to minimal discovery, thus reducing expenses and time spent working on the case.

Many courts throughout the country have adopted Charleston County’s basic model of the SJT as a replacement for formal jury trials.  For those individuals injured and seeking compensation, a personal injury lawyer can guide them through the process and move for a Summary Jury Trial if they feel it’s in the client’s best interest.The obvious advantage for jurisdictions adopting this format is when the SJT is widely utilized; small suits burdening the court system are alleviated, ultimately benefiting the taxpayers.

Jon Rivers is a legal marketing specialist and researcher dedicated to educating the public about the various issues associated with personal injuries and the law firms who help victims get justice. Find Jon Rivers on Google+


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