Summary Jury Trials vs. Regular Jury Trials. Which is Better for the Plaintiff?

Recently, defense attorneys have advocated that the parties agree to “summary jury trial” as opposed to your standard jury trial. What is a summary jury trial? A summary jury trial is a privately held trial where evidence is presented much like a regular jury trial in order to encourage settlement, with a panel of six (6) deciding the case, as opposed to twelve (12) jurors. You don’t get a judge but hire your own, similar to hiring a special referee, to act as the judge.  He or she makes the decision regarding the admissibility of evidence (much like in arbitration) like a regular judge. The verdict may be binding, much like if it was in regular court. For a very complete analysis of Charleston County summary jury trials see author Steven Croley’s law review article here.

What are the possible advantages of a summary jury trial? Some argue that its faster to get a summary jury trial, but that is likely largely dependent on jurisdiction. In Charleston County, the docket moves relatively quickly, and a trial date can sometimes be had in a year. However, the advantage of the summary jury trial is that the parties can agree on a date certain, and that date the parties will go forward and there is no need to worry about standby dates. You show up on that day and try the case. Because the parties are agreeing to the date, along with the agreed-upon “judge”, this date in theory could occur a lot more quickly.

Another advantage of the summary jury trial is you can set the parameters of the award. For instance, the plaintiff may claim that the case is worth $600,000 and the defense $100,000. The parties can agree that the award be somewhere in that range based on the determination of the fact-finder. This eliminates some risk between the parties. The plaintiff avoids facing the risk of a defense verdict and the defendant avoids the million-dollar verdict. If there are no parameters, the jury may award as they see fit.

Another possible advantage is the number of jurors. The fewer the jurors, the fewer you have to convince, which can be particularly helpful for a plaintiff verdict. Convincing half the number of jurors than a regular jury trial could prove beneficial for either side, but may benefit the plaintiff.

The main disadvantage is that summary jury trials have relaxed rules of evidence. Evidence that would only be admitted after foundation is established  may be admitted more expediently. Evidence that could be excluded upon objection might be admitted. The relaxed evidentiary rules place the deciding judge in the precarious position of deciding whether the relaxed rules allow for the questionable proffered evidence to be admitted. If it is borderline, he or she will probably let it in. If it is more likely to be inadmissible in a regular court the judge has a more difficult decision.

Summary jury trials will continue to be used in Charleston County as a mechanism to avoid unwanted delays while awaiting a date certain in regular court. The fact that they continue to be used is a testament of their success. Allowing the parties to control the case is a huge benefit, but the plaintiff attorney has to understand the costs. Clearly, the admissibility of unwanted evidence is a huge cost, but it may be counteracted by the award.

If you or somebody you know has been involved in a car ccident, it is wise to seek an attorney to review insurance policies to ensure that all available insurance is exhausted. Please contact one of our personal injury lawyers at Miller|Conway. We are a Charleston car accident lawyers located in Goose Creek handling personal injury cases throughout the Greater South Carolina region, including car accidents in Summerville, North Charleston and Downtown and we are here for you when you need us.

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