While trials have certainly been on the decline for the past several years, the summary jury trial may be just the thing to breathe new life into a dying litigation tool. What is a summary jury trial? If you have not already heard, it is a “binding jury trial, typically conducted in a single day before a panel of six jurors and presided over by the assigned judge, a judge appointed by the court, or a special hearing officer selected jointly by the parties.” Here are some of the key features of the summary jury trial:
- Discovery is conducted on an expedited basis.
- Documentary and witness limitations are imposed.
- There is no court assigned court reporter, but litigants may pay to have the proceedings recorded.
- All aspects of the trial—jury selection, opening statements, presentation of proofs, closing arguments, and even the reading of the jury instructions—have assigned time limits to ensure the trial will be completed in one day.
- A verdict requires agreement by five of the six jurors.
- Postjudgment motions, other than for a new trial alleging an irregularity, misconduct, error in law, or fraud that denied the moving party a fair trial, are not allowed.
- Parties have no right to appeal other than in the case of fraud.
Summary jury trials might be a bit newer in Michigan, but according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), they have been in existence since the 1980s, with District Court Judge Thomas Landros selecting 88 cases out of the Northern District of Ohio for summary jury trial. Unlike the summary jury trial program in Michigan, those trials were nonbinding. After that, several jurisdictions implemented some version of the summary jury trial, including Charleston County, South Carolina; Maricopa County, Arizona; Bronx County, New York; Clark County, Nevada; Multnomah County, Oregon; and several courts across California. The keys to a successful summary jury trial program, according to the NCSC, are strong judicial support, a shared perception by both plaintiff and defense bars of fairness in the decisions, and fairness in the procedural requirements.
Significant benefits are reported with using summary jury trials. For the defense bar, providing an opportunity to test the market to establish the range of reasonable settlements for similar cases was invaluable. Cost savings were also big benefits for both plaintiff and defense counsel. Finally, newer lawyers are using summary jury trials as a way to further their own professional development and build trial skills—something that is greatly needed according to the American Bar Association.
But not everyone is singing the praises of summary jury trials. A recent article notes how a juror in Southern Florida felt she had been misled about participating in a trial she later learned was nonbinding. She “believed she was deciding a ‘case of real consequence’ and was aggrieved to learn otherwise.”