Juries have always been an important part of our legal system. Although many people dread jury duty, they are really performing a service when they are called. That service involves providing a judgment by a panel of your peers. We place a great deal of value in judgment rendered by your fellow community members.
Generally, juries consist of twelve people and nine of those twelve people have to agree to whatever outcome of the case is appropriate. The jury is allowed to speak with one another and look over evidence to make this determination. While the verdict may be as general as guilty or not guilty, there are also cases where the jury will be asked specific questions related to the case. As a rule, the jury is a finder of fact and their fact conclusions are treated as if they are complete fact, even if there may be some question. If the jury concludes that the grass is blue and the sky is green, then that’s how it is.
However, if the jury comes up with a ridiculous verdict given the circumstances, then the judge can reverse them. If the jury says the grass is blue and the sky is green, then the judge will recognize how strange that is and override their determination. If the question is closer, however, the judge will default to whatever the jury decides.
The jury’s role is obviously very important, but they can only do as much as they are instructed to do. For example, if the jury is asked to answer questions about the case (a “special verdict”) and a question is written poorly, then the jury can only answer the question as best they can. The judge or lawyers have to recognize that the question is written poorly. The jury system will only work as well as we set it up to work.
An example of a poorly written question occurred in a personal injury case appealed from the Parish of Calcasieu. The case involved a light fixture that fell on a woman’s head and injured her face, neck, and shoulder. She sued the construction company who recently installed the light fixture. The major issues in the case were whether the light fixture actually fell and whether she was injured by the fixture falling.
Several people testified that they saw the injuries on the woman’s face and they had pictures of the fixture hanging from a wire from the ceiling. The jury was instructed to answer the following question with a yes or no answer: “Did you find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that an accident occurred on or about August 19, 2002, injuring the plaintiff, Patricia Bourque?” While this question seems straight forward, the fact that it is a compound question creates problems.
For example, what would you answer if you concluded that the accident did occur, but that was not actually the source of her injuries? Or if her injuries did not actually occur? What if the light fixture did not actually fall? If you found one of the pieces missing, you would have to answer no. However, the jury needed to provide an answer to both elements. Therefore, they should have been presented to the jury separately. What if five people thought the injury occurred and four people thought Patricia was injured? You get your nine people, but they have different reasons for answering the question the way that they did.
The appeals court concluded that the jury verdict was void because of this question. Instead, since Patricia had already been through trial twice for this same issue, the appeals court took it upon themselves to decide the issue. They considered the fact record and determined that Patricia was injured and it was because of the light fixture. Instead of a jury verdict that awarded her nothing, Patricia got $452,689.78 in medical expenses, $250,000.00 in lost wages and future medical expenses, and $500,000.00 for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
Juries are an important part of our legal system, but they are only as effective the lawyers and judges allow them to be. Specialized knowledge is required for legal action. Contact the Berniard Law Firm if you have been injured and we would be happy to discuss your options with you.