Information About Civil Justice

How Ordinary Citizens Achieve Justice:

“The founders of our nation considered the right of trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption. … (J)uries represent the layman’s common sense and thus keep the administration of law in accord with the wishes and feelings of the community.”
— Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

Information About Civil Justice in America

Innocent people are sometimes injured or killed because someone else created an unreasonably dangerous situation. The effects of the injury or death are magnified by the high cost of medical care and the difficulties presented when people can’t work or care for their families. The person or business that created the problem should take responsibility and correct the situation as best as possible.

Sometimes, however, that doesn’t happen. Either the responsible party refuses to admit that they are at fault, an insurance company refuses to take care of the injured person, or reasonable people simply disagree about what should be done. When this occurs the civil justice system is the only option available to the injured person.

The civil justice system is different than the criminal justice system. Under criminal law the federal, state or local government may try to punish someone for committing a crime. Citizens, however, must rely on civil law to achieve justice. For example, if a member of your family is injured because someone else acted carelessly the only way to force the other person or his or her insurance company to pay the medical bills and lost wages is through the civil justice system.

The American civil justice system uses juries to apply legal standards to the situation at hand and then decide whom, if anyone, is at fault. Sometimes there is a specific legal standard that applies an exact standard of care and dictates what actions a person or business must take when conducting a particular activity. For example, under both federal law and Oregon law a commercial truck driver must carefully inspect the brakes on their truck before it can be driven on a public road. If someone is killed because a truck driver didn’t bother to inspect the brakes on his truck the jury must decide, “Did the driver fail to follow the law and inspect the brakes and did this failure result in the victim’s death?”

The Jury Trials in America

We cannot write a specific statute or regulation for every possible activity in life. Because of this, the civil justice system relies on the “common” law reasonable standard of care. This standard is straightforward. It states that every person and business has a duty to act in a “reasonable” manner to avoid injuring others. A jury of local citizens is chosen by the court and parties to the lawsuit to determine what is reasonable conduct and what is not. For instance, there is no specific law that requires, “You cannot injure another person by crashing your delivery truck into the side of their car because you were too busy eating a cheeseburger and changing the radio station.” Instead, using the common law standard of care the jury must simply decide, “Given these circumstances, was the driver of the delivery truck acting reasonable when they injured the other person?”

The American jury system protects both sides of the dispute. It ensures that everyone, even the largest corporations, is held accountable when they carelessly injure someone. Likewise, the jury can find against any person who has filed a lawsuit if the jury believes the case has no merit. Because each side must answer to a jury of community members, no one can use their wealth or political power to sway the outcome of the trial. To learn more about the American jury system and Oregon juries check out the Oregon State Bar Handbook for Jurors. For a general introduction to Oregon courts you may review An Introduction to the Courts of Oregon.

Please Do Your Part

If you are summoned for jury duty, please consider that we each have a responsibility to be involved in our community. We decide what actions create an unreasonable risk of danger and when parties should bear the blame for injuring someone. If reasonable citizens refuse to do their duty and to help decide what is right and what is wrong, then who will decide? The answer is likely big business and powerful political interests. However, regular citizens should have a voice too. They should ensure that the system remains fair. Remember that you too may need the help of a jury someday.

More Information About Civil Justice