I had jury duty the other day. Along with 40 others, I was called into a courtroom to be considered to serve on a trial. Simply put, an individual felt that a car dealership had misrepresented a car to him and he was suing. I wasn't chosen. (Juror 22 of our 40 ended up on the jury; I was juror 23.) Given that, I never learned what he paid for the car but the average price paid for a used car is about $15,000. Taking such a case to jury strikes me as absurd.
Median income in San Diego is about $50,000 a year, which works out to $1,000 a week or $200 a day.
40 of us jurors spent a day on that trial. (Most of that time was spent waiting before being called into the courtroom to be screened.) So, day one of that trial cost us or our employers about $8,000. (40 people at $200 a day.)
The judge and attorneys chose 14 people (jury of 12 plus 2 alternates). The judge had estimated that the trial would be done the following Monday, which meant 5 more days for those 14 jurors. That's another $14,000. Combined with the $8,000 for the 40 jurors on day one, that means $22,000 for jurors.
That does not include the salary for the judge, bailiff, court clerk and various administrative folks we briefly dealt with. Let's say that collectively those folks make the same $200 a day and that there are only 4 of them (assuming that all the administrative folks behind the scene average out to one per courtroom). So this trial costs another $4,800 (let's call it $5,000) in salaries for them, for a total of $27,000 for actual or lost wages / productivity of the folks needed to support this one trial.
$27,000 in salaries for the folks involved in litigating a case that probably had to do with what portion of a $15,000 car purchase a buyer should be reimbursed. As a society, we're spending at least twice as much to settle a grievance as the grievance is worth.
I completely support the right of individuals to sue companies and for companies to sue individuals. Bad things happen and injustices deserve their day in court. It's a great thing that we have our court system and that we're free to sue anyone (within reason). I simply think it's absurd to treat so many of these civil cases as deserving of a jury trial given the labor costs involved.
During a football game, there are set rules and there are referees who penalize teams for breaking the rules. Within the NFL it is about 14 penalties a game, (given the ball is in play only about 11 minutes a game (and no, I'm not joking: you can read the explanation behind that stat here )), that works out to more than one penalty per minute. We do this because we want games to be fair. I think that the world of everyday business and employment is at least as important and while I don't think that we should have penalties levied every minute, I do think that such penalties should be standardized, cheap and common. If you rough the kicker, the penalty is 15 yards and an automatic first down. If you fail to tell a buyer that a car has been in an accident, the penalty is $5,000 or 20% of the purchase price, whichever is more. (Or whatever we decide as a society.) As with referees who know the game and can quickly adjudicate the penalty, these business issues that fall under the bailiwick of a civil suit should have default penalties that expedite the process. Many such incidents should be judged within an hour or at worst half a day and then levied a penalty (or thrown out) by an individual expert or two. It should not cost $30,000 to litigate a case on a $15,000 purchase; at most it should cost a couple of thousand dollars.
If trials were cheaper, we could have more of them, in the same way that cheaper computers or cars have meant that more people can have them. More of a good thing is better and cheaper trials would make life more fair.
Our court system is too expensive and this notion that every petty case deserves a jury trial is one reason. As with so much in life, experts can do a better job for less and should. We should have justice. It should not cost society more than it is worth.