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Jurors May Soon Be Able to Ask Questions in Illinois Civil Lawsuits

Birth injury lawsuits almost always include allegations of medical malpractice. All medical malpractice lawsuits are types of civil lawsuits where private citizens seek compensation for harm caused. This is different from criminal cases where the public seeks to hold a private citizen accountable for their conduct. Because they are a type of civil lawsuit, many Illinois birth injury lawsuits that go to trial may be affected by a new procedural rule in our state. As discussed this week in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, the new rule will allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses in these cases.

Of course, in the traditional model, jurors are essentially observers of a trial. Witnesses take the stand, attorneys ask questions, judges make procedural rulings, and the jurors just watch. For quite some time observers have questioned whether it might make sense for jurors to play a more active role, considering that they are ones who will be making the final determination in each case. That is why many states and federal courts allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses. Right now about half of all states allow some form of jury questioning along with all federal circuit courts.

Up until now, Illinois did not specifically authorize these questions. That will change on July 1st when Illinois Supreme Court Rule 243 takes effect. The rule outlines a process by which a judge can allow jurors in a civil case to submit written questions to witnesses. The process which led to this new rule has taken several months. The idea was first proposed by an attorney in August. Then the Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee held a hearing to consider the idea. Various judges and attorneys testified at that hearing to explicate what the implications might be and explain the procedural issues that needed to be considered.

The final result of the process was the new rule which explicitly allows juror questioning and verifies ways that the rule should be applied. In an effort to make the system as fair as possible, jurors will only submit questions after both attorneys have had the opportunity to examine a witness. Once the written submissions are in hand, the judge will share them with the attorneys who will have the change to issue any objections to the questions. The judge will then make the final ruling as to whether each individual question will be submitted to the witness, modified in some way before submission, or rejected.

Our Illinois birth injury attorneys understand the underlying rationale behind this practice. It is vital for jurors to remain as engaged with a trial as possible and providing them a way to get questions answered is crucial in ensuring they are reaching conclusions without any misconceptions. We have frequently explained the importance of the jury trial in our system, and we work to fight against tort reform efforts that chip away at the jury system. We also appreciate that having the attorney view the questions may ultimately lead to mid-trial strategy changes in some birth injury cases. For example, if questions make clear that jurors are confused about a certain principle or have some misconception about what happened, different witnesses or questions may be asked to provide further clarification or perspective.

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