On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. DC-031074-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff and Fuentes.
On October 5, 2010, plaintiff Lamar Williams filed a pro se complaint in the Special Civil Part seeking compensatory damages against defendant American Auto Logistics. Defendant transported plaintiff's car from Alaska to New Jersey. Plaintiff alleged the car suffered damage while in the custody of defendant due to its negligence. Plaintiff sought compensatory damages for the damage to his car and the emotional distress he experienced. Following a bench trial, the judge dismissed the complaint.
On appeal, plaintiff argues the judge erred as a matter of law when he proceeded to try the case without a jury. Plaintiff also contends the judge should not have dismissed his complaint. We hold that the judge should not have denied plaintiff a jury trial and this fundamental error requires a new trial.
In his complaint, plaintiff did not request a jury. Defendant, however, requested a jury trial in its answer. When the parties appeared for trial, defendant waived its request for a trial by jury. Plaintiff refused to waive a jury trial. The judge informed plaintiff that the matter would proceed as a bench trial because he had not requested a jury trial when he filed his complaint, and defendant had waived its request for a jury trial. The judge explained that plaintiff could obtain a jury trial, if he dismissed the complaint and filed a new complaint with a request for a jury trial. Plaintiff did not want to follow the course suggested by the judge, and the matter proceeded as a bench trial.
Rule 6:5-3(d) provides: "If a jury is demanded and the demand is not withdrawn by consent, or if trial by jury is ordered by the court, the action shall be tried by jury." Rule 4:35-1(d) is the Law Division counterpart to Rule 6:5-3(d), which governs trials in the Special Civil Part.
The Supreme Court has explained: "The right to trial by jury has long been a bedrock in the dispute resolution mechanisms of this State, and a bulwark against anti-democratic forces." Wood v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 206 N.J. 562, 574 (2011). Any party to a civil action at law may demand a trial by jury.
R. 4:35-1(a); Wood, supra, 206 N.J. at 579. Once any party demands a jury trial, the court may waive the jury trial only with the consent of all parties. R. 4:35-1(d); see also 500 Columbia Tpk. Assocs. v. Haselmann, 275 N.J. Super. 166, 170 (App. Div. 1994) (explaining that all parties, including ones that did not make a jury demand, are entitled to rely on any party's jury demand).
To be sure, plaintiff did not provide the prescribed pretrial information to defendant, a proposed set of voir dire questions, a list of proposed jury instructions, or a proposed jury verdict form. Rule 4:25-7 permits the parties to waive the exchange of information, but each party must still submit the other material to the trial judge. The trial judge may also impose sanctions, including striking the jury demand, on the party who fails to submit all information required by the rule.
R. 4:25-7(b); Conrad v. Michelle & John, Inc., 394 N.J. Super. 1, 10-11 (App. Div. 2007). Here, however, the record plainly demonstrates that the decision to proceed without a jury was informed by a misunderstanding or misapplication of the law. Once defendant requested a jury trial, plaintiff was entitled to rely on that request, and when he refused to consent to try the case without a jury, the judge was required to empanel a jury. This error is so fundamental that it requires a new trial.
Reversed and remanded for a ...