If you've ever watched an episode of Law and Order or any other courtroom drama for that matter, you know the basic makeup of the parties in civil or criminal trials. There are lawyers for each of the litigants (the plaintiff and the defendant), the jury, a bailiff, a judge, and a court reporter, or some combination thereof. One of the most important parties to a brain injury case is the judge. The judge has five basic tasks:
- To preside over the proceedings and ensure that order is maintained.
- To determine whether any of the evidence that the parties want to introduce is illegal or otherwise improper.
- To instruct the jury about the law that applies to the case and the standards it must use in deciding the case (if it is a jury trial).
- To determine the facts and decide the case (if it is a bench trial).
- To sentence convicted criminal defendants (if it is a criminal trial).
While judges are often presumed to be the most important person in the courtroom, their authority changes depending on whether there is a jury present. Below, we'll take a look at the difference between jury trials and bench trials and what responsibilities a judge has in each.
Difference Between Questions of Fact and Questions of Law
In all brain injury trials, there are two types of questions that must be determined--questions of fact and questions of law. A question of fact is a question that is to be determined by weighing the strength of the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses - in other words, it is a question as to what happened in a particular situation. For example, in a brain injury trial stemming from a car crash, a question of fact could be whether the defendant was actually speeding at the time his car struck the plaintiff. A question of law, on the other hand, could be either:
(a) An issue regarding the application or interpretation of a law, or
(b) An issue regarding what the relevant law is, if there are two or more mutually exclusive laws at issue.
In cases where a jury is present - known as "jury trials" - the jury makes conclusions concerning questions of fact, while the judge makes conclusions concerning questions of law. In cases where no jury is present - proceedings that are known as "bench trials" - the judge makes conclusions of both law and fact. Thus, the judge's role in a brain injury trial depends on whether there is a jury present.
The Judge's Role in a Jury Trial
Jury trials are most common in criminal litigation because criminal defendants have a constitutional right to be tried by a jury of their peers, although they do occur in civil litigation as well, including cases arising from serious brain injuries. In a jury trial, the jury is the "trier of fact," while the judge decides questions of law. Thus, all questions of fact are presented to the jury by the attorneys for both parties through the form of opening and closing statements, introduction of evidence, and examination and cross-examination of witnesses.
During the course of a trial, there will be objections made to the introduction of various pieces of evidence by one of the parties. In those cases, it is the judge's responsibility to decide whether the evidence should be admitted or not. The judge will also direct the jury to ignore certain bits of testimony that a witness offers that he or she finds are illegal or improper.
At the conclusion of the trial, the judge will instruct the jury as to what the law is and how to apply it to the facts of the case at hand. In brain injury trials, a jury is also the party responsible for determining how much to award the plaintiff in damages, since this is a question of fact rather than law. Although the judge will normally instruct the jury to stick to the facts of the case when deciding how much to award, the final decision is ultimately up to the jury and how much compensation that they deem to be fair under the circumstances. However, if the judge feels that the jury's damages award is either grossly excessive or grossly inadequate, he or she can either decrease it through a "remittitur" or increase it through an "additur."
The Judge's Role in a Bench Trial
The judge's role in a bench trial is more expansive than his or her role in a jury trial. In a bench trial, the judge has the responsibility of being the trier of fact in addition to all of the duties he or she has in a jury trial. Thus, while attorneys present evidence to a jury in a jury trial, they present evidence directly to the judge in a bench trial. The judge will then act as both an impartial finder of fact, the finder of questions of law, and the arbiter of disputes between the parties to the litigation.
Bench trials are much more common in civil litigation than in criminal litigation. This is due to the fact that the parties to a civil trial are required to request a jury and pay a fee if they would like to use one, while the right to a jury is assumed in criminal trials, and must be waived to convert the trial to a bench trial.
Contact a Clearwater, FL Brain Injury Lawyer for a Free Consultation Today
If you have been involved in an accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury, you may be entitled to compensation. If your case goes to trial, you will need competent representation by your side to defend your interests and ensure that you receive the damages you deserve. You should also have an attorney who will explore other avenues to resolve your case and allow you to recover without the cost and stress of trial if possible in your case. Please contact the brain injury attorneys at the Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA for a free consultation by calling 727-451-6900.