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Procedural Violations Cannot Result in Loss of Right to Jury Trial

By Lauren M. Gregory, Litigation News Associate Editor – January 9, 2017


The Supreme Court of New Jersey has placed another arrow in the quiver for litigators faced with potential waiver of trial by jury. The ruling in Williams v. American Auto Logistics creates clear jury trial precedent for litigators: a procedural rule violation is not sufficient to demonstrate intentional relinquishment of a constitutional right, according to leaders of the ABA Section of Litigation.


Protecting the "Bedrock" of the Judiciary
The plaintiff in Williams, acting pro se, had asserted several tort and contract claims against a transport company to recover for damage to his car allegedly sustained while the company was shipping the vehicle from Alaska to New Jersey. The plaintiff did not expressly demand trial by jury in his complaint.


Although the defendant company had originally requested a jury trial, it later waived its demand. The trial judge permitted the unilateral waiver, despite a local rule that requires the withdrawal of a jury demand only by consent. The court informed the plaintiff that in order to assert his right, the plaintiff would have to refile the complaint with a formal jury demand and pay the associated fee. The plaintiff refused to do so.


The judge then pointed to the plaintiff's failure to submit certain pretrial disclosures and proposed jury instructions pursuant to a local procedural rule and held that denial of jury trial was an appropriate sanction for the violation. The case proceeded to a bench trial, and the court concluded the plaintiff's claims lacked merit.


The plaintiff challenged the decision, and the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court granted his appeal, concluding that although the plaintiff had failed to provide voir dire questions, proposed jury instructions, and a proposed verdict form to the defendant as required by the rules, the trial court should not have denied him a jury trial: "Once defendant requested a jury trial, plaintiff was entitled to rely on that request, and when he refused to consent to try the case without a jury, the judge was required to empanel a jury." The case was remanded to the same trial judge, who struck the plaintiff's jury demand a second time and referred the matter to another judge for a second bench trial, which resulted in a second judgment in favor of the defendants.


The Supreme Court reversed, recognizing that the right to a jury trial is sacrosanct: "The right to trial by jury has long been a bedrock in the dispute resolution mechanisms of this State, and a bulwark against anti-democratic forces. A jury trial is self-government at work in our constitutional system, and a verdict rendered by one's peers is the ultimate validation in a democratic society." Therefore, the court held, trial courts cannot sanction litigants with loss of a jury trial for mere failure to comply with procedural rules.


The appellate court was careful to limit its ruling to civil cases where the right to jury trial existed at common law, as opposed to cases in equity, where that right does not normally apply. The court also took pains to preserve "the expansive discretion that a trial court wields in managing its docket." A trial judge must consider the "panoply of sanctions in [its] arsenal," the court held, and "carefully weigh what sanction is the appropriate one" with "fundamental fairness to both parties" in mind. This could include holding a party in contempt, precluding a party from admitting certain evidence, entering an adverse inference against a party, imposing a penalty fee to the court or another party, ordering a new trial, or even dismissing a litigant's complaint with prejudice in drastic cases, the court held.


Creating Important Precedent
Section of Litigation leaders praise the decision for upholding such an important constitutional protection. "Too many courts have been willing to find the 'intentional relinquishment of a known right' to jury trial on flimsy facts," says Carmen D. Caruso, Chicago, IL, cochair of the Section's Civil Rights Litigation Committee. "This case is nice precedent for anyone who has faced a jury trial waiver argument, whether you missed a deadline, or you didn't fill out the right form, or you signed a contract with boilerplate language that you hadn't noticed," Caruso opines. "It puts judges on notice that before he or she finds waiver, he or she better be sure it was truly an intentional relinquishment of a known right. That language comes from a [United States] Supreme Court case [Johnson v. Zerbst], but the phrase gets repeated so often, it loses its meaning."


Tips in the Pro Se Context
Another takeaway is that litigators "always have to be careful with a pro se opponent," notes André B. Caldwell, Oklahoma City, OK, cochair of the Section's Minority Trial Lawyer Committee. Although an attorney cannot act as counsel for both parties, there is room to collaborate with pro se parties to the benefit of all involved, Caldwell says. "Sometimes you want to give them some insight as to the law, so they are aware of what their obligations are," he says. "That can actually help you in the end."


For example, had Caldwell represented the defendant, he might have considered approaching the plaintiff to forewarn him that his client would be announcing its waiver of the jury demand. "Obviously, I wouldn't necessarily advise him that he has to give consent [to waive his right to a jury trial under the New Jersey rules]," Caldwell concludes, "but I would do my part."


Keywords: jury trial, Seventh Amendment, waiver


 
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