Last Thursday I attended the second session of the Mini-Law School at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The subject was civil litigation. This was very timely since I had spent a good portion of the last two weeks sitting in on a murder trial in Boulder: Michael Clark accused of killing Marty Grisham in 1994. The professor indicated that civil and criminal litigation differ but have some elements in common. Civil cases do not involve criminal or administrative law but include cases dealing with topics such as contracts, torts and property. Litigation is dispute resolution.
To put things in perspective, in 2008 in the US there were 115 million cases of which 25 million dealt with civil matters. This is a 67% growth since 1984. Any question of whether we’re a litigious society?
95% of civil cases are heard in state courts (including traffic, municipal and small claims courts) and the rest in federal courts. If you are injured, you have three choices: 1. Do nothing, 2. Proceed independently, or 3. Contact an attorney. If litigation is pursued, the next steps are: pleadings, discovery, summary judgment (if allowed), jury selection (if a jury is involved), trial, verdict, post-trial motions, appeal (if any), effect and enforcement. Enforcement is often an issue in civil litigation. You might win but then spend years trying to collect from the other party.
The steps in a trial include: opening arguments, prosecution evidence, defense evidence, closing arguments, jury instructions, deliberation and verdict. These steps are similar to the criminal trial I’ve been following. It went to the jury Thursday at noon and the jury deliberated through Friday afternoon and will resume today (Monday).
The professor stated that our system gives full leeway to the jury to make a decision. He cited a case where after a verdict was rendered, it was discovered that the jury was drunk, sleeping most of the time during deliberation and dealing drugs to each other. An appeal to throw out the jury decision went to the Supreme Court, but it was not overturned. The jury is a black box where no one outside can interfere, no matter how good or bad the jury is. The only times action are taken are if a jury member is threatened, bribed or a jury member does outside experiments or brings something from outside into the jury deliberations (an example mentioned was a jury member who brought in a Bible and consulted it).
Next session is environmental law.
Author of the Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery Series