Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Jury (pd)It is not often that a case that starts in the Special Civil Part — New Jersey's small-claims court — ends up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. But this is exactly what happened in Williams v. American Auto Logistics. It could not have been cost effective for the plaintiff to see this case through two separate bench trials, two separate appeals to the Appellate Division, and finally an appeal to the Supreme Court. But the issue in the case was so important that, notwithstanding the costs, the effort was likely worthwhile.

In Williams, plaintiff had his car shipped from Alaska to New Jersey by defendant. After he picked up the car, he discovered water damage in the trunk. Plaintiff sued in the Special Civil Part after efforts to amicably resolve the dispute failed. Plaintiff did not demand a jury trial in his complaint, but defendant did in its answer. At the pretrial conference, the trial court referred the parties to mediation, which was unsuccessful. Upon returning from mediation, defendant waived its jury demand. Plaintiff objected, but the trial court granted defendant's request. In support of its decision, the trial court noted that plaintiff had violated Rule 4:25-7 by failing to make the requisite pretrial submissions. (Among other things, Rule 4:25-7 requires parties to submit proposed voir dire questions, jury instructions, and jury verdict forms.) The trial court held that it could deny plaintiff's request for a jury trial as a sanction for this failure. Therefore, the case proceeded to a bench trial, where the trial court found no merit to plaintiff's claims.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded. It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand. It further explained that "a trial judge may impose sanctions, including striking the jury demand, on a party that fails to submit the requisite pretrial information," but that the trial court in Williams erred by "allowing a single party to unilaterally waive the jury demand."

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It Was Not Fun To Stay (Swim) At The YMCA For This Plaintiff Or His Counsel

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

 

A "garden variety slip and fall case" led to an instructive Appellate Division opinion on exculpatory clauses and the requirements of the New Jersey Court Rules governing appellate practice. The plaintiff prevailed on its appeal and had its lawsuit against defendant, which had been dismissed by the trial court, reinstated; but his counsel had to endure a scolding from the Appellate Division in the process.

In Walters v. YMCA, Plaintiff sued for injuries suffered after he slipped on the steps leading from an indoor pool at the YMCA in Newark, New Jersey. The YMCA did not deny that plaintiff slipped, but argued that plaintiff's claims were barred by a broad exculpatory clause in his membership agreement, which purported to hold the YMCA harmless for "any personal injuries or losses sustained . . . on  any YMCA premises or as a result of a YMCA sponsored activit[y]."  The trial court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the exculpatory clause was "unenforceable as against public policy" because enforcing it would "eviscerate the common law duty of care owed by defendant to its invitees." The Appellate Division distinguished Walters from a prior decision, Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., Inc., in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an exculpatory clause shielded a health club from injuries sustained by a plaintiff when the handlebars of her stationary bike dislodged and caused her to fall during a spinning class. In that case, the inherently risky nature of the plaintiff's physical activity was "the key consideration . . . to justify enforcing the exculpatory clause at issue." In Walters by contrast, the type of accident — slipping and falling while walking on stairs — "could have occurred in any business setting." Accordingly, the "inherently risky nature of defendant's activities as a physical fitness club was immaterial" to the Appellate Division's analysis.

 

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