Under the common law system, trials are either bench trials or jury trials. In a bench trial, a judge or panel of judges issues the final ruling. In a jury trial, although a judge always presides, it is a jury who issues the ruling and, if applicable, awards monetary damages. Jury awards are monetary amounts that a jury has determined one party must pay the other.
Juries emerged in the English common law system as a way for citizens to take some responsibility in the trying of community members. It was believed that a jury of one’s peers could issue a perhaps fairer, more appropriate ruling than could a judge. A jury is usually a body of 12 community members, called jurors, who together must confer on the facts and reach a single opinion about how the law should apply to the case. When a case involves a person who has been injured, be it physically, emotionally, or financially, oftentimes the jury awards damages.
The jury trial system remains in use in England, and has also been adapted and applied in the United States, Australia, and other common law-based countries. In England, a jury trial is usually the default, whereas in the United States, a bench trial is. A jury trial can always be requested in the US, however, and the choice of a jury trial is often made strategically. Sympathetic plaintiffs — that is, plaintiffs that jury members can easily identify with — often walk away with higher jury awards than they would awards coming from a judge sitting alone.
Any award that the jury decides on must be reached by a majority of the jurors. The decisions need not be made unanimously, but more than half of the jurors must agree to an award before it can be read to the court. Deliberations and juror decisions can take hours, and sometimes days.
Although juries have some freedom with respect to how they award damages, jury awards must still comport with the law. Most of the time, governing law sets a range for appropriate damage awards. Jury awards must fit within that range to be valid.
Jury awards must also be approved by a judge. In this way, the judge acts as overseer for the case, and serves as a final checkpoint to enforcing the law. Most of the time, judges sign off on jury awards automatically, and order that they be enforced. In cases where the damages seem disproportionately high, however, judges can lower the awards, or eliminate them outright, even if they are within the legally allowable range.
Judicial decreases of jury awards typically happen when multiple counts or crimes are at play. In a personal injury case, for instance, a plaintiff might be found liable for recklessness, for negligent endangerment, for property damage, for present and future medical expenses, for future suffering, and for emotional distress. If the jury were to award damages at the high end of permitted damages for each of those counts, the total award could be astronomical — which could also be disproportionate to the underlying action. It is the judge’s job to make sure that the jury awards are not only justifiable, but also fair to both parties.