If you file a civil lawsuit against someone, or if another person files a lawsuit against you, you can choose between two basic types of trials:
A trial by judge, where the judge hears the case and makes a ruling based on the judge's knowledge of the law and the testimony heard.
A jury trial, where a group of your peers listen to the case and issue a judgment.
When you file a lawsuit, a jury will hear the case by default. However, you have the right to ask for a trial by judge (also called a bench trial).
If you do this, the court will not assemble a jury to become fact finders in the case. Instead, the judge will oversee the courtroom and make judgments.
While convincing only one person to see your side of the case may seem easier than convincing jury, a jury trial offers several benefits.
Terrence James Cortelli, a personal injury lawyer in Nyack, New York, notes that "It is generally felt that juries are more willing to give more money to a person injured than a judge would. In short, it is generally felt that jurors are more easily persuaded than judges."
Before you decide to file the paperwork for a trial by judge, consult your attorney. The rules for making this request vary by state, but you usually have to file paperwork around the same time you file your case.
Lastly, it's important to remember that defendants in lawsuits can usually demand jury trials. In other words, requesting a trial by judge won't necessarily guarantee one.
In a trial by jury, the court summons several people to court to listen to the trial and make judgments based on witness testimony.
This jury listens to the case, including testimony from the plaintiff, defendant, and witnesses. While the judge makes the decisions in the courtroom, the jury is responsible for deciding the case in favor of the plaintiff or defendant.
Jury trials are best suited for cases where you need a sympathetic ear. Judges tend to make decisions based on facts and legal concepts, while juries contain people without legal backgrounds. This means emotion is more likely to play a role in their decision.
In a trial by judge, the judge not only oversees the courtroom, but also serves as the fact finder in the case. After the plaintiff and defendant finish presenting their sides of the case, the judge will decide whether the plaintiff has offered enough evidence for a ruling in the their favor.
Since judges are familiar with legal proceedings, these trials sometimes take less time. Judges know when evidence can be considered admissible or appropriate for a legal proceeding. Bench trials are also less expensive, because the defendant or plaintiff won't have to pay jury fees.
Trials by judge are generally favored for cases involving clear-cut legal disputes, such as breach of contract. The judge can quickly rule based on the facts of the case. If the facts are in your favor, trials by judge are often the best choice.
If you're still not sure which option would be the best, an attorney can help you decide between a jury trial and a trial by judge before you file your lawsuit. The right choice often depends on several factors that they can explain to you.