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In civil cases, a dispute reaches the court when the plaintiff’s attorney files it. Just as plea bargaining is common in criminal cases, bargaining often leads to negotiated settlements in civil cases. Pretrial conferences provide a venue for this negotiation. At times, the judge may even suggest a particular amount that seems reasonable, based on the judge’s experience with similar cases. If a satisfactory settlement cannot be reached, the case goes to trial, but relatively few cases end up in trial. In some types of cases, such as automobile accidents, the plaintiffs generally prefer a jury trial in anticipation of a larger settlement.

At times, disputes are settled before civil cases go to trial, and, in such instances, the trial is used to legitimize the outcome. This is particularly true in divorce suits. In such cases, the two estranged spouses reach a separation agreement, and then at least one of the spouses takes action in court to formalize and legitimize the agreement.

It has often been said that juries in civil cases are “out of control,” handing out unnecessarily large punitive damages against corporations for minor issues suffered by a defendant. This view led to a movement for tort reform during the past three decades, with several states specifying relatively low maximum amounts for punitive damages (Studdert et al., 2006). However, research on civil cases finds that judges award punitive damages as often as juries and generally in about the same proportion, suggesting that juries may be far less arbitrary, irresponsible, and incompetent than many people believe (Cohen, 2005; Eisenberg et al., 2006).

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