One of the most fundamental rights in our American Society is the right to trial by jury. Our founding fathers thought this was such an important right that they put this in our Bill of Rights:
Article the ninth [Amendment VII]
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
This gives us the right to have a jury of our peers decide our case. It allows us, the people, to place checks on governments, corporations, and other large institutions. It is a fundamental right. But, no more.
There are many situations today where this right has either been taken from us or where we have voluntarily relinquished it. I just met with a client who has a good claim for short term disability, but due to the law, it is not worth filing suit. As a result, I had to explain this to him, and it got me to thinking about this blog. I’m going to give you three areas of law where you have no right to a jury trial, and you may not know it.
The first. ERISA claims. What is ERISA? ERISA is the Employees Retirement Income and Security Act. Essentially, this statute was enacted to "ensure that employees receive pensions and other benefits promised by their employers." Instead, ERISA has been used to protect Employers, not Employees.
How? In any situation where you are not happy with the way your insurance carrier is treating you, you could typically sue them. However, if you obtained your insurance through an employer’s plan, ERISA jumps in, and you have no state cause of action. You must sue in Federal Court, and you are not entitled to a jury:
The result is that the only remedy available to a covered person who has been denied benefits or dropped from coverage altogether is to seek an order from a federal judge (no jury trial is permitted) directing the Plan (in actuality the insurance company that underwrites and administers it) to pay for "medically necessary" care.
The Second: workers compensation claims. In Alabama, you cannot have a jury decide your case if you are injured on the job and sue your employer, unless the injury was a willful act:
Proceedings for determination of disputed claims for compensation – Commencement of action, etc.
. . . At the hearing or any adjournment thereof the court shall hear such witnesses as may be presented by each party, and in a summary manner without a jury, unless one is demanded to try the issue of willful misconduct on the part of the employee, shall decide the controversy.
Finally, the third: Arbitration. This is where you willfully give up your right to a jury trial. Arbitration clauses are everywhere now. Credit card agreements. The purchase of an automobile. Even nursing home contracts. You cannot do anything these days without signing an arbitration agreement.
Why do you think this is? Why are companies scared to have a jury of one’s peers decide their case? Arbitration is more expensive than litigation. Many defense attorneys advise their clients NOT to go into arbitration. Jury verdicts are not as outrageous as you would believe. In fact, in the last two jury verdict reporters in Jefferson County, there were seven jury verdicts involving car accidents. The results:
Defense – $0.00
Defense – $0.00
Defense – $0.00
Those sound like outrageous verdicts to me.