The role of juries in adjudicating cases has long been the subject of consternation and debate by those in the legal system. In civil jury trials, the jury acts as the fact-finder and must determine the proper level of liability (and where applicable, damages) to assign the defendant. Much psychological research has focused on how to craft trial procedures to assist juries with this complex task. For example, providing juries with both preliminary and final jury instructions has been found to improve decision-making processes and trial outcomes by giving jurors a cognitive framework to assess the evidence presented at trial. Other studies have observed that simplifying jury instructions, as well as allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions, can improve both juror comprehension and satisfaction. But how do jurors come to a verdict once they are sent to deliberate?
During trial, lawyers make many strategic decisions to try to appeal to a jury. For example, they consider not only the substance of the evidence they present, but also the emotional impact of that evidence. But the impact of a witness’ testimony can be blunted if your jury is not following the testimony, so the use of demonstrative exhibits can be a useful tool to ensure the jury remains focused on the testimony.
The jury renders its verdict. No party objects. The judge thanks the jury for its service, discharges them, and tells them they are free to go. The jury exits, but there’s one problem: the jury’s verdict is internally inconsistent. Is it too late to call the jury back to rectify the inconsistencies in its verdict?
This was the question facing the Supreme Court in the case of Dietz v. Bouldin, decided earlier this month. After the jury delivered a verdict of $0 in damages, the judge discharged the jury and the jurors left the courtroom. However, the judge quickly realized that the jury’s verdict was legally impermissible: the parties had stipulated that medical expenses of $10,136 were owed, and the only question for the jury to decide was whether the award should be even higher.