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Can You Pursue a Jury Trial for Employment Rights Violations?

Most employment rights lawsuits that make the news end one of two ways: the case is settled out of court for “an undisclosed sum,” or a judge hears the case and issues a ruling. However, these are not the only options available to workers whose rights have been violated. For example, a Black former Tesla plant worker who has sued the company for alleged racial discrimination and harassment has exercised his right to a jury trial this week. 

Owen Diaz filed his initial lawsuit in 2017 after experiencing extreme racial harassment at Tesla’s Fremont manufacturing plant. Some of the allegations he made about his time with the company in 2015 and 2016 include that he was called racial slurs by managers, depicted in racist caricatures, and exposed to swastikas drawn in bathrooms. Furthermore, he claimed that management did not respond when he filed complaints on the matter. He took his case to court and requested a jury trial to ensure his case was decided by his peers. 

Diaz’s initial case was successful. In 2021, the jurors awarded him $7 million in damages for emotional distress and $130 million in punitive damages against Tesla. However, a federal judge lowered the overall amount to $15 million. Diaz rejected this lower offer, arguing that the lower award would not actually impact the carmaker’s behavior. He’s opted for a second trial to pursue damages he believes are just. In this subsequent trial, he will likely be awarded between $15 and $137 million. Furthermore, the California Civil Rights Department has filed a separate lawsuit against the company on behalf of other employees suffering from racial bias at the Fremont plant.

This lawsuit against Tesla demonstrates the potential benefits of pursuing a jury trial instead of settling or having a bench trial. But how are these processes different?

Why Is a Jury Trial Important in a Civil Case?

It’s well known that anyone accused of a crime has the constitutional right to a trial before a collection of their peers. However, not many people realize that the same right is guaranteed for civil cases. The Seventh Amendment states, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Today that applies to almost every civil case possible. Since the Amendments were ratified, more than two centuries of case law support your right to have a jury trial, even in civil claims. 

However, there are two important differences between civil and criminal jury trials:

  • Jurors do not need to make a unanimous decision in civil cases. As long as a majority of the jurors agree, they can issue the ruling.
  • In civil claims, the jurors decide the damages amount, and the judge can alter them if necessary. In contrast, in criminal cases, the jury decides the verdict, not the penalties.

Still, despite these differences, your right to a trial by jury is invaluable for several reasons. Some of the most significant benefits include:

  • Reducing the risk and impact of a politically biased judge: The entire reason the United States uses a juror system when the majority of the world does not is to reduce the risk of biased officials deciding cases. While juries are composed of individuals with biases, the number of people involved ensures that no one person’s opinions can unduly affect your case. 
  • Allows people similar to you to decide the case: In employment rights trials, judges frequently have more in common with your employer than with you. Meanwhile, a jury of your peers will likely include people who sympathize with your experience in a hostile work environment. This may work in your favor. 
  • Potentially larger damage awards: Because of the empathy jurors may feel for plaintiffs like you, jury trials often lead to larger damages than bench trials. 

You are not obligated to have a trial before a jury, though. Many people opt to have bench trials instead, where a judge hears and decides the case, and no jury is present. This is because bench trials are often faster, and judges are more likely to follow the nuances of your attorney’s legal arguments. In some cases, this may make a bench trial a better option. 

Should You Pursue a Civil Jury Trial for Employment Rights?

Your attorney is the best person to advise you on whether to pursue a jury trial, bench trial, or settlement during your employment rights case. They can help you consider details like:

  • How sympathetic jurors may be to your claim
  • Whether any facts of your case may confuse or distract the jurors
  • Whether it’s worth spending the extra time on the matter in court
  • If punitive damages are more likely to be awarded by the jurors

With these details in mind, your attorney will advise you on the best path forward for your claim. 

What to Expect During a Civil Jury Trial

Jury and bench trials are structurally similar. The difference is whether the judge or the jurors are responsible for making the final decision. Your attorney will develop the narrative and arguments for your case with the intended audience in mind. The way that your lawyer would argue your case for a judge is likely different than how they might present it to jurors. If you have questions about whether you should pursue a trial or settlement in your case, do not hesitate to contact the expert San Diego employment Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman, P.C. We have decades of experience representing employees in hostile work environments. Reach out today to discuss your case and learn more about how we can represent you before a judge or jury.