We learn in school the right to a jury trial is fundamental. Yet, that basic right suffers constant attacks and problems from many sides. Special interest groups seek to limit accountability for misconduct. Lobbyists work to corrupt the system. Legislators in Alabama (and many other states) chronically underfund our Courts. Our court personnel work hard to provide fair trials with limited resources. While I’ve discussed many of these problems in past articles, today I want to talk about a practical issue that sometimes interferes with the court’s ability to conduct trials – the importance of having enough potential jurors present for trial.
This morning, the Huntsville Times ran an article about a local case that had to be continued due to a lack of potential jurors. The local case involves a proposed rock quarry and claim for damages against a local municipality. Naturally, it’s a high profile case. In high profile cases, it’s difficult to find impartial jurors under ideal circumstances. That’s understandable. Residents living in and around a proposed quarry may have deep feelings on the issue. Bias for one side might prevent their service on the jury.
Yet, it appears the problem is not simply one of finding unbiased jurors. Instead, it’s a problem of starting numbers – too few people to even select a jury. Several civil jury trials were set in Madison County this week, including this high-profile quarry case. Yet, according to the newspaper article, only 90 potential jurors were available for all these cases. That’s too few to provide panels for all the scheduled cases. It’s far too few people when one of those cases also brings publicity and bias.
Why were only 90 potential jurors available? I don’t know. But, I do know the printed list of people contacted for jury duty is much, much larger than 90 people. I read those printed lists because of my law practice in Madison County. Is this a problem of notification? Does our court system fail to notify those listed? Is this a problem of calendaring? Does our court system fail to calendar and coordinate jury trials efficiently? Is this a problem of enforcement? Does our court system fail to enforce the call to duty? I don’t know. I’ll leave the issue to people who run our local court.
People serving on our juries are deeply committed to bringing justice in the case they are hearing. Our jurors listen and often take notes. They pay close attention to evidence and take the job very seriously. After I finish a trial, I often talk with the jurors about their experience. Every time, I walk away with greater respect for our system and the seriousness in which the jurors listened and tried to make the best decision possible (often under difficult circumstances).
Whatever caused the lack of potential jurors, it is important that people are available to hear cases in our local courts. It takes a significant number of potential jurors to get the 12 needed for each individual case. It takes a large number with multiple trials at one time. It also takes a large number when the issues, like this week, are public and involve a local community.
How does this impact our car accident and injury cases? Some car accident cases also require a large number of potential jurors. Why? We start with this — Alabama law requires every driver to have liability insurance. Although every driver is required to have liability insurance, attorneys in car crash cases are prohibited from telling the jury about it. That’s right, the defendant in a car accident case has liability insurance but the lawyers cannot tell the jurors. While this cannot be mentioned at trial, courthouse officials will typically ask the entire panel of potential jurors about their individual coverage before the trial ever begins.
In Alabama, a few large automobile insurance companies insure most drivers. State Farm. Alfa. Progressive. USAA. Nationwide. The number of insurers is relatively small. So, it is highly likely many of the potential jurors will be insured by the same carrier as the defendant. These potential jurors are typically stricken. This sometimes leaves too few jurors for a trial.
Because of potential juror shortages, planning is important. And, it’s important that those called to appear, do so. Justice delayed often results in justice denied. All of us suffer.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm represents clients with serious personal injury cases across Alabama.