by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
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 It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand.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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When I used to teach Legal Research and Writing, one of the phrases I encouraged my students to avoid was "and/or." Like a lot of legalese, I think lawyers believe that using "and/or" leads to greater clarity in their writing when in fact the opposite is true. I suspect that, like much of what I taught them, my students avoided "and/or" in the writing they submitted to me and then quickly went back to using it as soon as they got out of my class. They may have thought that my opposition to "and/or" — like my opposition to "any and all," "heretofore," and any number of other phrases — was personal preference not generally accepted advice. If they did, however, they would have been wrong, and the Appellate Division has now confirmed as much.
In State v. Gonzalez, the Appellate Division reversed defendant's conviction and ordered a new trial because the trial court's repeated use of "and/or" in its jury charges rendered the instructions "hopelessly ambiguous and erroneous in important respects." In that case, defendant was convicted of, among other things, robbery and aggravated assault. (The emphasis on "and" will become clear later.) He was accused of conspiring with two other individuals to rob and then assault another individual. As might be expected, the prosecution and defense presented different versions of the underlying events to the jury. The problem for the Appellate Division was not the evidence that each side presented, but rather the repeated use of "and/or" by the trial judge when he instructed the jury on how to evaluate that evidence.
The Appellate Division began by observing that "[t]he imprecision of the phrase 'and/or' and criticism for its use [in New Jersey] and in other jurisdictions has been well documented." New Jersey's highest court previously described it as an expression that "has never been accredited in this state as good pleading or proper to form part of a judgment record." Courts in other states were less kind, calling it: a "verbal monstrosity, neither word nor phrase;" "an inexcusable barbarism" that was "sired by indolence;" a "mongrel expression" that was "an equivocal connective, being neither positively conjunctive nor positively disjunctive;" and an "abominable invention." The Appellate Division further observed that "[w]henever found in the decisions of [New Jersey] courts, 'and/or' has been recognized as creating ambiguity."
Continue reading “Jury Instructions Deemed Ambiguous “and/or” Erroneous “and/or” a “Mongrel Expression”” →