Your right to a civil jury trial in a lawsuit is protected by the Seventh Amendment. This Amendment states:
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
The founders of our country were really busy people. So why was it important to them that this Amendment be included?
Judges in the American colonies were biased towards the king. When King George III got rid of trials by juries, and the colonists’ only remedy was from a biased judge, they were not happy. This was one motivation for the Declaration of Independence. When the Framers wrote the Bill of Rights, they understood how important it was to have a fair court system, so they made sure that the right to have a civil jury trial was a fundamental law of the country.
The effect of the Seventh Amendment is to create a system that helps equalize power. This amendment does not say that only the rich and powerful may file civil lawsuits. Nor does it exempt the rich or powerful from being sued. And instead of allowing judges to decide these disputes – who, as civil servants, might have reason to be biased towards the government or the rich and powerful – the Constitution insists that citizens decide disputes. The power of the Seventh Amendment is that any person may sue any other person if they feel they have been wronged and be assured of a reasonably fair decision maker.
The Seventh Amendment governs federal cases. Unlike some other amendments, the protections of this Amendment have not been extended to the states. So the right to a jury trial for state cases is based on state law. Fortunately, Oklahoma’s Constitution also recognizes the importance of the civil jury trial and has protected this right.
Of course, the rich and powerful have sought to limit the Seventh Amendment at every opportunity. For the last 50 years or so these restrictions have been marketed as “tort reform.” Convincing ordinary people that there are too many lawsuits, that there needs to be a curb on lawsuits and that lawsuits are harmful is a marketing campaign to drum up support for restrictions on the right to a civil jury trial. It is an effort to remove one of the few tools we have to hold everyone accountable to the rule of law.
There are many people who would point out that a plaintiff’s trial lawyer financially benefits from the civil justice system and because of that, they cannot be believed or at least have a bias about the civil justice system. The fact that a plaintiff’s lawyer earns their living through a contingency fee system actually benefits our community. Because most plaintiff’s lawyers do not get paid at all until a case is won, they have very little incentive to file a frivolous lawsuit – that is a waste of time and money since most plaintiff’s lawyers also advance the costs of the lawsuit. So there is a built in checks-and-balances on our current civil legal system.
The civil jury trial performs a couple of very important functions in our society. For those who have been wronged, it is a healthy, non-violent avenue for seeking justice. There was a time in our country when wrongs were righted by dueling as the recent hit musical, Hamilton, demonstrated. A less formal but equally violent system of seeking justice still exists in some places in the world such as rural India and Afghanistan. Fortunately, because of the civil jury trial, we do not have to resort to vigilante justice.
Another purpose of the civil jury trial is to deter wrongdoers from behaving in ways that endanger others. The criminal laws define the worst behavior that the legal system seeks to deter. But it is impossible for the law to anticipate every situation which may arise and to regulate safe behavior in every instance. Instead, the civil justice system asks the jury to determine what safe behavior was in a given situation and to evaluate whether the defendant acted reasonably carefully. When people and companies know that the jury will decide when a wrongdoer should pay for unsafe conduct, then they are less likely to engage in unsafe conduct. There may be grumbling about lawyers to justify a particular decision, but the decision is tilted towards avoiding bad conduct that could give rise to a lawsuit.
So the next time you hear a negative comment designed to convince you that the civil jury trial is a problem, remember that restrictions on this system only benefit those who want to find ways to not be held accountable. For most of us, the civil jury trial is a protection provided to us by our Constitution and worthy of respect. So if the fireworks put you in a patriotic mood next week, take a minute to be grateful for the Seventh Amendment.
And remember – if you need a civil trial lawyer, Koller Trial Law may be able to help you. Contact us.