What's a Bench Trial?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had a few different bench trials, so it occurred to me that it might be helpful to do a short post to help explain what that is, for those who are interested or curious.

A bench trial is a case in court where the judge makes the decision. As opposed to a jury trial, where the judge just calls the balls and strikes on the law and objections, but the jury renders the ultimate decision, in a civil case where a bench trial is pursued, the judge calls the balls and strikes AND determines the outcome and, in a civil case, the value it deserves.

Most bench trials occur in the district courts in Maryland. There, cases of more limited value proceed, and jury trials are not even an option in most instances. But bench trials can occur in circuit court cases, too, where the values are typically higher. I find these latter instances much rarer.

So let me give you some recent examples to show the difference.

A few weeks back, we had a case in the circuit court but, for strategic reasons, we did not pray (ask for) a jury. Likewise, the defense – who could have elected to demand a jury given the stakes – opted not to do so. Fortunately, this led to an earlier trial date that was not disrupted by covid-related postponements that otherwise affected jury trials for most of the past two years. In that case, we were fortunate to beat the last offer made by the insurance company by 5 times.

More recently, we had a case that was filed in the district court for $30,000. There, the defense could have prayed a jury and taken the case to circuit court (currently, any case where more than $15,000 is sought, a defendant may elect a jury trial) but chose not to. Since the matter remained in district court, the case was presided over and decided by a judge – a bench trial. In that instance, in a case that had been postponed numerous times due to covid-related closures, we were finally able to successfully close that chapter for our client, getting a $25,000 verdict in a case where there had never been an offer made by the insurance company.

Where to file a case if litigation is required and for what amount is an important strategic decision that an attorney must give careful consideration. Whether or not to request a jury trial is another layer to that analysis that attorneys, both plaintiffs’ and defendants’, need to be aware of as they litigate cases. These decisions can make the difference between winning and losing, or how satisfying the victory is – or how sour the loss.

If you have any questions about any of this material, please feel free to contact me. Please know that all of this information is based on Maryland law and is informational only, i.e., not intended to be viewed as legal advice and certainly not creating any attorney client relationship between me and the viewer. Thanks for reading, and stay well.