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 It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand.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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