Law 101 for Experts: Understanding Jury Trials

Jury trials are a cornerstone of the United States’ legal system. The first rules for jury trials in the colonies were encoded in 1623, when the leaders of the Plymouth Colony decreed that both criminal and civil matters “should be tried by the verdict of twelve honest men to be impanelled by authority in form of a jury.”

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

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— Updated on July 12, 2022

Law 101 for Experts: Understanding Jury Trials

While the country has come a long way in 400 years, the basic form of jury trials remains the same. Civil and criminal cases are often tried before a panel of citizens. These citizens swear or affirm they will carry out their role as a jury to the best of their ability. Understanding the jury’s role and obligations can help expert witnesses communicate effectively with juries.

The Role and Responsibilities of the Jury

A jury typically consists of people who represent a cross-section of the community. The role of the jury is to consider the facts of a case, weigh evidence, and return a verdict. The verdict can be “guilty” or “not guilty” in a criminal case. In a civil case, the verdict can be “liable” or “not liable.”

While juries have a heavy responsibility, their role is limited. The judge has significant power to decide which evidence will appear before the jury. As such, the judge’s decision may heavily influence the jury’s decision-making.

A judge may make a ruling deeming a witness unqualified to be an expert, for instance. That ruling will prevent that witness from sharing their informed opinion with the jury. Without the witness’s perspective, the jury may come to a different conclusion about whether a defendant caused a plaintiff’s injuries or whether the plaintiff is entitled to compensation.

The judge may also place the jury’s focus on particular issues that the jury must resolve. In medical malpractice claims in Indiana, for example, a medical review panel, consisting of three physicians, determines causations. If the physicians find that the defendant did cause the plaintiff’s injuries, the case may proceed to a jury trial. However, the jury can only decide on questions of compensation.

In this case, the judge will instruct the jury not to decide whether the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Rather, the judge will instruct the jury to take causation as an established fact and decide what damages, if any, are appropriate.

Juries perform their role within several legal boundaries.

First, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) and corresponding state rules set minimum and maximum enrollment for juries. Under FRCP 48, federal civil trial juries must have at least 6 and no more than 12 members. Each member must participate in reaching a verdict unless the judge excuses a juror.

Judges also give specific instructions to a jury. Instructions may come before the trial begins, at the close of evidence, or both. Often, a judge will give trial-related guidance to a jury before the trial begins. The judge will also give instructions on the jury’s specific duties and considerations after the attorneys present all the evidence.

General guidance includes topics like whether or not the jury may take notes and what to do if a juror needs to use the bathroom or attend to another urgent need. Jury instructions explain issues like the burden of proof and how to weigh the evidence.

Both federal and state courts typically submit questions to the jury in writing. These questions are often broken down into individual yes/no queries. FRCP 48 also allows federal court judges to require juries to return a “special verdict,” or a finding on each issue of fact, without offering a “general verdict,” or a yes/no answer to “Is the defendant liable?”

If the answers to these questions are inconsistent with one another, a judge must either send the jury back to reconsider its answers and verdict or order a new trial. 

Best Practices for Experts Testifying in Jury Trials 

A jury is a group of people from the surrounding community. Jurors come from all walks of life, educational backgrounds, and personal histories. To provide the best possible assistance to a jury:

Provide clear, concise explanations of technical facts as they apply to the case. The jury doesn’t need to understand the entire field. They need to understand which principles apply to this specific situation and how.

Imagine a case in which the plaintiff alleges a curling iron overheated due to defective wiring, causing second-degree burns. The jury doesn’t need to understand all the details of electrical current or skin anatomy. They need to answer specific questions, like “What went wrong in the wiring to cause this much heat?” and “Was that enough heat to cause second-degree burns?”

Know which issues the jury is deciding. Discussing causation when the jury is only present to evaluate damages, for instance, will confuse the jury and may even lead to a mistrial. Know which facts the jury is allowed to accept as given, and address the questions the jury needs to answer.

Distinguish questions of fact from questions of law. “Did the wiring cause the curling iron to overheat?” is a question of fact. However, “Was the curling iron manufacturer negligent in wiring the curling iron this way?” is a question of law. Jurors are required to stick to questions of fact. Expert witnesses support jurors best when they also stick to questions of fact.

Expert witnesses can be powerful allies to juries. Working together, experts and juries can understand the case facts more clearly, leading to more accurate and trustworthy outcomes. Apply best practices for testifying before a jury to help jurors understand the questions they must answer.

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