The Myth of the "Runaway Jury"

Empty jury seating area in courtroomFar too often, large corporations and negligent parties seek to avoid trial by jury in order to look after their own bottom line. They attempt to call lawsuits against them frivolous or settle to avoid a jury trial. One term that is used is “runaway jury.” This is the belief that juries are made up at random and that they can issue a verdict wildly above the true value of the case. Defendants fear this idea and do whatever they can to prevent their case from going to trial.

Do Juries Issue Verdicts Based On Prejudices?

If members of the jury have prejudices, do they use these to issue a verdict? That is one of the main concerns regarding jury trials. Because juries are composed of 12 different individuals from different walks of life with differing opinions, how does this influence a case? According to research performed by Professor Neil Vidmar at Duke University, these claims and fears are unfounded.

Research Shows Juries Are Largely Honest & Effective

Professor Vidmar concludes in his study that the fear of “runaway juries” influencing the American court system had no justifiable scientific evidence to support the claim. He determines that there is no defective legal system, and despite the critics, he believes that the decisions made by juries are on average considered reasonable and temperate.

Only a small percentage of cases are actually tried. Many of them are settled prior to trial by jury and others are dismissed. As such, there are not many reports of smaller awards or verdicts won by plaintiffs, so the thought of only winning large awards is present due to the media attention they are often given, thus making defendants’ fears unjustifiable.

Wisdom of the Crowd

The idea of “wisdom of the crowd” plays a large role in jury trials. Aristotle, the great political theorist and philosopher, believed the collective opinion of a group is more likely to arrive at the truth than the judgement of one single person. The assumption is that the answer given by a group of individuals relies on more general world knowledge rather than that of a single expert.

At the end of the day, the runaway jury legend is often used by defendants in civil cases to lessen the impact of the trial or avoiding it altogether through settlement. However, there is no reason to believe that “runaway juries” are harming the justice system. Juries have been, and always will be, a vital part of a healthy and transparent democracy.
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