You are the Brakes on a Runaway Jury
I wrote earlier about medical malpractice cases in North Carolina and why they are so difficult to start and win. Briefly, there are special procedures in North Carolina to make sure that medical malpractice cases that are brought in the courts have merit. Aside from those special restrictions, in every civil case in North Carolina, there are several brakes on frivolous lawsuits and runaway juries. A North Carolina judge in every case in North Carolina has several opportunities through motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, and motions for directed verdict, to totally end a “frivolous” lawsuit before a jury decides. In addition, the judge can even impose sanctions on a party or an attorney who brings a lawsuit without merit.
Aside from the legal professionals, a jury of normal people, chosen by both sides of a lawsuit, hear the relevant facts and rule not only for who is at fault, but how much damages they should get based on the law the judge gives them. It takes the unanimous consent of 12 people to award both liability and damages. Think about that. Get 12 of your friends together to go to lunch and propose some ridiculous extreme lunch idea, like “let’s drive to Raleighand eat at the McDonalds in the RDU airport!” Do you think you could get all 12 of them to agree? In a lot of jury deliberations, one or two jurors may want to give a claimant a large amount of money that is close to or outside the most the evidence would suggest, and others may decide that the same claimant get much less than the evidence shows. What usually happens is the jury comes to a compromise number that is reasonable.
On the rare occasions when they don’t, the judge has yet another opportunity to put the case back on a reasonable road. He can render a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or a new trial for an excessive verdict. Then there is the appeals level, another opportunity for a case to be tossed out and sanctions awarded.
What “tort reform” usually means is politicians in Raleigh decide that no matter what the facts of a case or the law of a case say, somebody’s damages are limited to an arbitrary amount. With that, they are saying that YOU and your neighbor are not smart enough to listen to a judge, decide what the facts of a case say about how much a claimant should receive, and argue against anybody who is unreasonable, and that locally elected judges are not smart enough to stop a jury if it gets out of control.
Below is a nice video that shows that the system works. It briefly addresses the famous “McDonald’s coffee cup case” and shows how, once people hear some of the facts that the jury heard, they change their minds, and the “fancy pants” case about the judge who sued the dry-cleaners. Everybody knows that the case was frivolous, but nobody seems to know that the system took care of it without any additional help from the state government.
–Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who specializes in Personal Injury, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him at (910) 772-1678.