justice-weights-hammerI recently wrote a blog about the complexities of expert testimony (particularly with respect to topics such as toxic tort litigation), and the ability of a jury to make sense of all the scientific evidence. This problem begs the question: does it always make sense to request a jury trial? Or might there be some situations where there is an advantage to having a bench trial?

I’ve known many plaintiffs’ attorneys who chose jury trials in a knee-jerk fashion. They were certain that they would get a better award or settlement offer if they elected to have a jury trial. But in certain situations and jurisdictions, that may be penny wise and pound foolish.

The plaintiffs’ advantages from jury trials have always been assumed to be larger awards. And while that is often true, there is another strategy that might counterbalance that assumption. In most jurisdictions around the country, particularly in urban areas, the number of cases they must process are overwhelming the judicial systems. In many (not all) of those overworked courthouses, having a bench trial greatly reduces the amount of time between complaint and completion.

Defendants have an incentive to wait as long as possible before making a reasonable settlement offer. However, there may be a benefit for both sides to opt for a bench trial. For the plaintiff, the ability to bring a reasonable offer to your client quickly is of utmost importance to both client and counsel. While the offer may not be as big, it may provide an incentive for a defendant to expedite a reasonable offer. For the defendant, while they may part with their money sooner, there is a distinct possibility that it will be less than it would otherwise have been with the threat of a jury award hanging over his head.

There is another reason for plaintiffs to make this choice. With a judge, if your case is strong yet complex, you reduce the risk of losing the case due to lack of jury sophistication.

Finally, we all know that jury verdicts are far from sacrosanct. So even a big award is subject to remittitur.

Ultimately, whether it is advantageous to move ahead with a jury or a bench trial is in large part dependent upon the specific behavior patterns of the local jurisdiction. But the decision to move forward with a jury trial, particularly when an expert witness’s testimony will be seminal and complex, often comes with greater risks than moving ahead with a bench trial.

By: Ian Heller, Attorney at Law