The Importance of Civil Jury Trials

One of the most fundamental liberties in American life is the right to a civil jury trial. If we cannot resolve disputes on our own, a group of our peers from our community will fairly decide who was at fault and how much is owed. It is, simply put, the best way to find justice anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, our civil justice system, the envy of legal systems around the globe, is under attack. Under the guise of “tort reform,” insurance companies, gigantic medical institutions, and other big businesses are attempting to limit the amounts of their liability. The people that are the hurt the most are those that have already been injured by their negligence. You’ve already been injured once; don’t let your fundamental right to justice slip away.

In Pennsylvania, we’ve already seen one of the most important concepts in our law disappear to political pressure and lobbying from insurance companies. Joint and several liability was one of the key foundations of tort law in England and in the United States, right up until 2011, when the (un)Fair Share Act was passed. Until now, if you were injured by more than one person (for instance Sally Doe and Joe Smith), either Sally or Joe would have to pay you the entire amount that you are owed. Only after you have what is rightfully yours can Sally and Joe fight amongst themselves to determine who owed what. The reason was simple: you, as the innocent person, should receive justice first. Because your injuries were Sally and Joe’s fault, the law would take care of you first before taking care of them. But this is no longer the case, and you are the one that is hurt by it, because you might not be to collect the money that is owed to you. The (un)Fair Share Act, in essence, adds an insult to your injury. Unfortunately, there may be more insults to come.

Former President and Founding Father John Adams once said, before the United States was even a nation, that “representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.” The civil jury system has existed since before the United States existed. It has been molded over centuries to adapt to the changing needs of society. But the newest changes, and the changes that are being pursued, are not what society needs. Society never needs to see innocent people suffer at the hands of those already hurt them.

Those seeking tort reform like to say that greedy plaintiffs attorneys and opportunistic litigants take advantage of the system and have spurred the need for reform. But is that really the case? Let’s look at medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania over the past 5 years. The following table shows the number of cases that went to the jury and the number of verdicts rendered in favor of the defendant in each of the past 5 years, the time in which the civil jury system supposedly went out of control:

2006 230 191 83%
2007 185 153 82.7%
2008 161 131 81.4%
2009 154 131 85.1%
2010 163 133 81.6%
Total (5 Years) 893 739 82.8%

These verdict reports were found at the website of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. Medical malpractice defendants are complaining about a system in which they win 82.8% of cases. Worse yet, they are winning the political battle behind lobbying dollars from big insurance companies and major corporate health networks. They argue that verdicts are too high in favor plaintiffs. However, 55 of the 154, or 35.7%, of all verdicts in favor of plaintiffs were worth less than $500,000. To an insurance company or a big corporation, that’s like ordering something off of the value menu. To the injured person, $500,000 may not cover their medical and legal expenses, let alone compensate for lost wages. Despite this, somehow it is the injured person who is called greedy, despite all indications that only the strongest of medical malpractice cases is a winner.

Keep those winning percentages in mind. Defendants win 82.8% of medical malpractice cases. Chuck Noll, the legendary football coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers won 57.1% of the games that he coached. To put it another way, defendants have a better chance of winning their case than Chuck Noll had of winning a football game.

If those in favor of tort reform truly believe that injured victims win their cases too often or family members are given too much money for the loss of a loved one caused by negligence, we offer a simple solution: don’t be negligent. Simply exercising reasonable diligence in life, and in professional care, can insulate you from liability. Instead of eroding the quintessential American right to a trial by jury, the simplest way to avoid liability is to avoid negligence itself. Tort reform fleeces the innocent and rewards the wrong. The (un)Fair Share Act, and the political campaign behind it, has already taken away one legal remedy for innocent victims. If Pennsylvanians are not vigilant, it won’t be long until more of our supposedly inalienable rights are taken away from us.

We at Behrend and Ernsberger, P.C. believe in the American values of justice and fairness. We will fight to ensure that you get what you are owed, and we will fight to ensure that the system will always be fair and just, in case you ever need it.