Q: I have been named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit in New Hampshire. Do I have a right to a trial by jury?
A: A trial by jury is a staple of the American judicial system. The right to a jury is, however, more limited than many would expect. In civil lawsuits filed in New Hampshire courts, you are not automatically entitled to a trial by jury in all cases. The right to a trial by jury in a civil case is notably less expansive than the right of a criminal defendant. Civil cases are tried either by a judge or by a jury. Your access to a jury as a civil litigant depends on several factors.
The New Hampshire Constitution enshrines the right to a civil jury trial, but this right has been narrowly interpreted by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The right applies only to civil claims that entitled citizens to a trial by jury when the New Hampshire Constitution was adopted in 1784, with some limited exceptions. The right to a jury trial is thus almost entirely claim-specific. Civil legal claims such as familiar claims like breach of contract, negligence, or trespass are generally grouped into two categories: claims at law and claims in equity. Claims in equity characteristically seek injunctive or equitable relief, where the plaintiff is seeking a judicial order to address an ongoing harm that cannot be adequately addressed by monetary damages. In virtually all instances, claims in equity are decided by a judge and not a jury.
Conversely, claims at law usually seek damages for a past harm, such as a lawsuit based on personal injuries suffered from a motor-vehicle accident. The right to a jury will attach to some, but not all, claims at law. Personal injury claims, for instance, are one prevalent type of claim which may entitle the parties to a trial by jury. In other claims at law, a party has no right to a jury, or the courts have not yet definitively resolved whether the parties have a right to a jury.
The decision to request a jury, if available, is often a very important consideration. The final outcome of the case, the speed at which your claims may be adjudicated, the likelihood of settlement, the costs of litigation, and other important factors may all hinge on whether the claims at stake in the case are tried by jury. If you are a party to a lawsuit and want to know whether you can, or should, demand a jury, it is advised to seek counsel of an experienced attorney to discuss the facts and legal claims prevalent in your specific case.
Know the Law is a bi-weekly column sponsored by McLane Middleton. Questions and ideas for future columns should be emailed to [email protected]. Know the Law provides general legal information, not legal advice. We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation.