While the New York State Court System is focusing on the safe resumption of in-person criminal jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are tens of thousands of civil litigants who are anxiously awaiting their day in court. Due to their injuries, many of these civil litigants are unable to work, have lost income, and require specialized medical care that is not covered by insurance. This creates continuing and mounting financial hardship. In the absence of civil jury trials, the liability insurance industry has little or no incentive to settle claims. In fact, the primary reason that the liability insurance industry will settle a claim pre-trial is to eliminate the risk of a substantial jury verdict. Thus, civil jury trials must be reinstituted promptly and safely to restore this incentive and provide financial relief to those who have been seriously injured as the result of the wrongdoing of others.
History of Civil Jury Trials
Historically, the Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 2 of the New York State Constitution guarantees the right to civil jury trials in all cases. The fundamental rights of a civil litigant are ensconced in the rights of all citizens to a civil trial under law, and there remains nothing more admirable in the American civil legal system than groups of independent fair-minded citizens selected to sit in judgment of their peers to resolve important disputes in an objective manner.
The jury trial is not an idea that originated in the United States. Jury trials date back to ancient times; Socrates, for example, was tried in Athens before citizen jurors. Centuries later, English common law that formed the foundation of American jurisprudence was codified in the Magna Carta of 1215. Sir William Blackstone, who wrote his Commentaries on the Laws of England in the eighteenth century, asserted that “trial by jury is a privilege of the highest and most beneficial nature [and] our most important guardian both of public and private liberty.” As European explorers sailed to America, they transported with them the European idea of trial by jury. In fact, the First Charter of Virginia incorporated civil jury trial rights in 1606.
As the Colonies lurched towards the revolution in the 1770s, England attempted to limit the Colonialists’ right to trial by jury. Thus, in the Declaration of Independence, the Colonists cited grievances supportive of the revolution against King George III that included “depriving us, in many cases, [of] the benefits of trial by jury.” Upon securing independence, the Colonies converted into a young nation, wherein Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1788 of civil jury trials being “the very palladium of free government.”
Administering Civil Jury Trials in a Timely Manner
Thus, it is quite clear that our Framers and legal scholars have addressed the importance of civil jury trials as a means of ensuring a just resolution of disputes among our citizenry. In all cases, true justice must be fairly administered in a timely manner. Unlike criminal cases, in civil cases there is no constitutional right to a speedy trial, but as espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr., “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” The increasingly high risk of knee-capping the American justice system by not promptly returning to civil jury trials will have an everlasting impact on those civil litigants whose access to the courtroom will be too long delayed.
Although a criminal defendant has the Sword of Damocles while awaiting trial, there is a different and most serious component that is tethered to a civil litigant – the elapsing of time and unreasonable delay in arriving at one’s day in court. For, if the delay is protracted and evidence no longer is available or witnesses become inaccessible, the aggrieved will suffer a lack of equal protection of our laws that could evoke the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Fortunately, New York State is now at the beginning of the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. Although we must remain vigilant, it is incumbent upon New York State civil litigators to vigorously advocate for the prompt and safe resumption of in-person civil jury trials in order to preserve our judicial system, restore the incentive to the liability insurance industry, and protect the legal rights of our clients.