The right to trial by jury is a fundamental constitutional right that dates back to the origins of our nation. The Constitution of 1776 states that “the inestimable right of trial by jury shall remain confirmed as a part of the law of this Colony, without repeal, forever.” The Constitutions of 1844 and 1947 state that “the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.”
In Williams v. American Auto Logistics, 226 N.J. 117 (2016), the court considered “whether a litigant may lose his constitutionally protected right to a jury trial as a sanction for failure to comply with procedural rules.” The plaintiff, Lamar Williams, filed suit against American Auto Logistics in the Special Civil Part of the Law Division. He claimed that he shipped his car from Alaska to New Jersey but that the car sustained water damage.
Williams was twice denied his right to a jury trial due to procedural violations under Rule 4:25-7. The Rule contains instructions for pre-trial conferences, the exchange of information between the parties and the submission of voir dire questions, jury instructions and a jury verdict form to the trial judge. The trial judge held twice—both during the first bench trial and again on remand from the Appellate Division—that the plaintiff failed to submit the requisite “paperwork,” including “certain pretrial disclosures and proposed jury instructions.” Thus, the trial court struck the plaintiff’s jury demand as a sanction for violation of the court rules.
At the outset, the Supreme Court asserted that the right to a civil jury trial “is one of the oldest and most fundamental of rights” and shall remain “inviolate.” The court confirmed “the strength of our commitment “to protecting the right to a jury.”
The right to trial by jury has been “a bedrock in the dispute resolution mechanisms of this State, and a bulwark against anti-democratic forces.” In fact, “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.”
The Supreme Court noted that a trial court has “an array of available remedies” to manage its docket and to enforce compliance with court rules and court orders. These remedies include holding a party in contempt, precluding a party from admitting evidence, entering an adverse inference against a party, imposing the payment of a penalty to the court or a party, and dismissing a complaint with prejudice, the ultimate drastic sanction. However, the court held that “trial courts may not deprive civil litigants of their constitutionally protected right to a jury trial as a sanction for failure to comply with a procedural rule.”
One of the main pillars of a democratic society is the right to trial by jury. The Supreme Court opinion in Williams affirms that right.