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Jury Trial v. Bench Trial - Part II, Bench Trial

Over the last decade, fewer and fewer legal matters actually go to trial. The majority of cases are resolved out of court, or are resolved prior to trial starting. However, civil trials do still occur and it is important that the parties understand the available forums and decide in which forum they believe they will be most successful.  

In the first part of this article, Jury Trial v. Bench Trial - Part I, Jury Trials, jury trials were explained and it was stated that despite what we see on television, or read about in books, the majority of trials in the United States are not jury trials. Jury Trial v. Bench Trial - Part II, Bench Trials, examines bench trials and discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a bench trial over a jury trial.

Bench Trials

The majority of civil cases that go to trial in the United States are bench trials, unless one party specifically requests a jury trial. At their essence, bench trials are trials held before only a judge who is the sole decision maker in a case.

In a jury trial, the first time that a jury hears anything about a case is when they are being picked. At that point, they might hear a brief statement of the case and be able to obtain some additional information by listening closely to the questions being asked of the potential jurors. Opening statements, which are provided at the start of trial, are the first real details of the case provided. 

Bench trials are completely different. Judges are assigned to cases at the outset of the legal process. They have access to all of the pleadings filed, including the plaintiff’s complaint setting out the facts and legal issues and the defendant’s answer to the complaint. Either or both parties may file motions which introduce issues that may or may not be deemed admissible in court. Motions, and their accompanying briefs in particular, allow parties to get their story and their version of the facts before the judge prior to trial and could help persuade a judge early on. Of course, this could work against a party if the arguments made in the motion or brief are far-fetched and a waste of the judge’s time. 

The mechanics of a bench trial are often similar to a jury trial, though they may be abbreviated if the judge chooses. There are still opening and closing arguments and the rules of evidence and procedure are the same. There is still a final decision at the end. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Bench Trial

A judge is more likely than a jury to understand the intricacies and complexities involved in the law and applying that law to the specific facts of a case. Judges understand that their role is simply to interpret the law and apply it to the facts of the case and are more likely to separate their emotions from a case. This often leads to less sympathy towards the plaintiff, which could be beneficial to a defendant. As a result, judges typically do not award the same high level of damages that juries do. In particular, they are less likely to award punitive damages. For personal injury victims or medical malpractice victims, where punitive damages are available, choosing between a bench or jury trial can be a particularly hard decision.   

Judges, unlike juries, have prior published opinions which can provide valuable insight into how a judge might rule in a case, or at least on a particular issue in the case. While no two cases are identical, reviewing a judge’s prior opinions can help a party 1) decide if they think their case will be successful or not; and 2) if they proceed with a bench trial, to lay out their case in a way they think will be most beneficial. A review of prior case law can establish what arguments, or types of arguments, the judge found persuasive and what types of arguments to avoid.  

Bench trials are typically less time consuming for parties then jury trials in part because of the mechanics involved with having a jury - picking a jury can be time consuming, the jury will need to be moved in and out of the courtroom as a group, the daily schedule will be less flexible (end and start times will be set and there will be time for breaks), and instead of just one person making a decision, up to 12 people will be considering the evidence, applying the law and trying to come to either a unanimous or a majority decision. 

In addition to cost, bench trials are typically cheaper for parties. While the initial filings and discovery remain the same, more time and money is spent when a jury is involved. In addition to the attorney time and expense in drafting and conducting voir dire and preparing jury instructions, a party may choose to hire jury consultants. Jury consultants look at the pool of candidates, do research and provide advice as to which jurors would be most likely to find in the party’s favor. 

Choosing Between a Bench or Jury Trial

Assuming that there is the option of choosing between a bench and jury trial, there are a lot of factors that will go into making a final decision. Consulting with an experienced Charlotte attorney is critical at this state of litigation. He/she will use the facts of the case, along with prior experience, and understanding of what judges and juries in the specific area typically do in similar situations. For example, a jury in a medical malpractice case in a city like Charlotte, N.C. will likely behave differently than a jury in a very rural area.

Let Our Charlotte Attorneys Review Your Case

The Charlotte, North Carolina based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC  are experienced attorneys. They understand the law and can advise you as to whether a jury trial is an option in your case, and if it is, if it is the best option.  Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation.

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