It may shock you to find out that jury trials are not about the complete truth. In many instances, juries only get to hear a portion of the facts. Indeed, jury members are often not allowed to know the entire law that pertains to a case. This blog will introduce two examples of those instances: one where a jury does not get to know the law, and a second where the jury does not get to know the facts.
Imagine you are a jury member in a case involving a motor vehicle accident. The injured plaintiff is requesting the at-fault defendant to pay damages. Do you think it would be helpful to know if the party that was at-fault had liability insurance coverage? Often at trial, during voir dire a jury member will ask me or the other lawyers that very question: “Is there insurance involved?” Well, in Oregon, absent special exceptions, the jury is not entitled to that information. When that question comes up, the lawyer fumbles around and says something like: “the judge will talk to you about that”. The judge then instructs the jury that they do not get to consider the at-fault person’s ability to pay. And the jury is left confused and without information they think is necessary. So that is one instance where a jury does not get to know facts that pertain to the case.
Now, let’s take a quick look at a time when the jury does not get to know the law. Assume that a person is injured by a defective product. In addition to economic and noneconomic damages, the plaintiff is requesting punitive damages. And, the punitive damages are extensive… say, for purposes of this example, three million in punitive damages. Oregon law provides that the vast majority of the punitive damages award does not go to the plaintiff. Most of the punitive damages award is paid to the State of Oregon for purposes of helping crime victims. But, and here is the catch: the jury does not get to know that – the jury may not be informed that only a small percentage of the punitive damages award is going to the plaintiff.
Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who benefits from these rules. If a jury thinks a plaintiff is requesting three million in punitive damages for herself, and the jury isn’t told that most of the money is going to help crime victims, they might be reluctant to award that much money. If a jury would like the assurance that a person who is at-fault is not going to be personally on the hook for a large verdict and would like to know if the at-fault person is insured before they award money damages, the court will tell them no. The clear beneficiaries of these rules are insurance companies and large corporations. It isn’t the regular Joe who benefits, it is those entities who have lobbyists working day and night for them.
Don’t get me wrong. Insurance has its place. And I have nothing against a company just because it is large. But when they can use their money and influence to bend our system of justice in a manner that tips the scales in their favor, that is simply not fair.