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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Winter 2006

Summary Jury Trials Cut Caseload

BY ANITA WOMACK-WEIDNER

A CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY MAN suffered brain damage when he was thrown from his snowmobile on a trail during a night ride and struck by another snowmobile on the same path. The injured man sued the snowmobiler who struck him, seeking $2.7 million in damages.

Rather than proceed to a traditional trial, however, the parties agreed to an alternative dispute resolution option - a summary jury trial (SJT). SJTs are abbreviated, one-day trials with few witnesses, summary presentation of evidence and a six-person jury. But for the jury, the process is similar to arbitration. SJTs are used to expedite resolution of both large and small cases. In the snowmobile incident, the litigants settled the case for $400,000 prior to the SJT date, demonstrating that scheduling an SJT - just as scheduling a traditional trial - fosters settlement, only far earlier in the litigation process.

Retired 8th District Supreme Court Justice Joseph Gerace- who was a member of the UCS Jury Trial Project and now serves as a judicial hearing officer - is leading the effort to make SJTs a way of life in New York State. The 8th district pioneered the use of summary jury trials in New York eight years ago, beginning with Judge Gerace's Chautauqua County SJT project. An SJT is typically scheduled within 60 days of the last settlement effort.  
photo
Judge Joseph Gerace
PHOTO: ANITA WOMACK-WEIDNER

"By successfully resolving nearly all of the cases in which a summary jury trial is used at only a fraction of the resources ... the summary jury trial is a potent tool for relieving calendar congestion," said 8th Judicial District Administrative Judge Sharon Townsend. "Jurors benefit by fulfilling their civic duty with a minimum of inconvenience; courts benefit by freeing up valuable space on their calendars; and parties benefit by resolving their disputes in a prompt and cost-effective manner." In the last three years of the Chautauqua project, not a single case proceeded to regular trial.

Under the Chautauqua rules, there are strict time limits on voir dire. Each side has a maximum of two peremptory challenges. Jury selection is often completed in 60 to 90 minutes. Each side gets a 10- minute opening and closing statement and one hour to present its case. Attorneys are typically limited to two live or videotaped witnesses; additional testimony may be submitted by deposition transcript or sworn affidavit. Each counsel may prepare a notebook of materials for the jurors (previously reviewed by the other side) and walk the jury through the exhibits. Medical testimony is submitted by written report, PowerPoint presentation, physician affidavit or video. The judge gives a streamlined charge to the jury, which renders its verdict by the end of the day.

SJT verdicts may be binding or nonbinding, depending on the parties' agreement and the order of the court. Current rules require consent of the parties in both binding and nonbinding cases. Often in binding cases the parties will stipulate to high/low limits of recovery.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Lambros of Ohio pioneered what he called "summary jury trials" in 1980 to encourage court settlements in the face of crowded dockets and trial calendar backlogs.

Summary jury trials have been used in at least 17 states and several federal jurisdictions to resolve large and small damage cases, including commercial disputes, negligence and medical malpractice actions, product liability cases, and even anti-trust and fraud cases.

Cases recommended for binding SJTs in the 8th district program manual include: relatively small damage cases where the cost of medical experts is prohibitive; cases involving large amounts where negotiations are close; and cases where injuries may result in verdicts exceeding policy limits and defense counsel seeks to cap the verdict.

"The summary jury trial is a potent tool
for relieving calendar congestion."

— 8TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT ADMINISTRATIVE JUDGE SHARON TOWNSEND

Nonbinding SJTs typically include: damage cases where an advisory verdict would promote settlement; cases where damages are the only issue; and cases where one party has an unrealistic settlement position. Even with a nonbinding verdict, court officials say the parties get a good indication of what may happen at a traditional trial and may settle.

Between October 1998 and December 2004, of the 183 cases in the Chautauqua SJT project, 101 cases settled before the summary jury trial date and two were stayed by bankruptcy before the SJT. Of the 80 that proceeded to a summary jury trial, 21 were resolved by binding verdicts. Of the 59 that went to nonbinding verdict, 43 then settled, 10 were discontinued, and six proceeded to a regular trial. At least 10 Erie County judges have participated in the 8th district program, with 120 summary jury trials in 2002-2004, 98 binding and 22 nonbinding. Judges in Niagara, Genesee, Cattaraugus and Allegany have also tried the SJT process. Every case resolved by an SJT, whether by verdict or settlement thereafter, is one less case on the regular trial docket, reducing pending caseload numbers.

While lawyers and judges who have used SJTs believe in its effectiveness, its acceptance is not widespread. Judge Gerace estimates that if SJTs were used statewide, the courts would see a significant savings in juror costs alone.

"Summary Jury Trials, used with great success upstate, should be expanded and tested in downstate jurisdictions as well," First Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau wrote in her report "Comprehensive Civil Justice Program 2005: Study and Recommendations."

The SJT procedure has been used successfully on an experimental basis in Albany, Putnam, Onondaga, Orange, Saratoga and Monroe Counties and is being considered in others, including Clinton, Montgomery, Dutchess, New York, Schenectady, and Ulster. Just last year, a voluntary nonbinding program was adopted by local rule in Kings County. In February, plans for a voluntary binding SJT program advanced in the Bronx, with the endorsement of the county bar association.

"Any judge who is interested in meeting standards and goals, any lawyer, any client who would like their cases tried early, ought to look at the summary jury trial," said Judge Gerace. For more information about the 8th district program, visit: www.nycourts.gov/courts/8jd/sjt.shtml.

Winter 2006 PDF Format
HTML Version:

State of the Judiciary Judicial Elections Report Summary Jury Trials Indigent Defense Services Multi-Hat Judge Matrimonial Commission Solo & Small Firm Practice Office of Self-Represented National Adoption Day Court Reporters Listening Conference Construction Update Historic Courthouses and Trials Did You Know? Judicial Institute Calendar UCS Katrina Fund Update Black History Month

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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov