Contrary to popular belief, the right to a trial by jury is by no means a guarantee, particularly in a civil (as opposed to criminal) context. Upholding a lower court’s decision refusing plaintiff a trial by jury, the Michigan Court of Appeals recently affirmed that certain claims for equitable relief – meaning claims other than money damages – are not entitled to a jury trial. See New Products Corp v Harbor Shores BHBT Land Dev, LLC, ___NW2d___ (Mich App 2014). In this particular case, the Court held that, unless an exception applies, a judge (rather than a jury) must decide any claim brought under Michigan law to determine competing interests in land.
In New Products Corp the Court focused primarily on whether the claim of property ownership was a legal claim or an equitable claim. Generally speaking, legal claims are those that may be redressed with a payment of money from one party to another. Equitable claims, on the other hand, are claims that typically seek to declare rights or to compel or prohibit one party from engaging in certain types of behavior. Legal claims, by right, may be tried to a jury. Certain equitable claims, however, may only be tried to a judge.
Whether a jury or a judge will decide the outcome of a case can be immensely important. Juries are more susceptible to the human factor, which includes both bias and sympathy based on how they view the parties as people, rather than litigants. Juries are typically less attuned to and interested in legal nuance than judges, often placing more emphasis on whether one party’s position is more sympathetic and more personally relatable. A good trial lawyer who finds herself on the wrong side of a legal issue may do well to demand a trial by jury if her client is likeable and relatable. Such legal strategy is not available for those claims that can only be tried to a judge.
On the other hand, in the absence of a sympathetic or unsympathetic jury, equitable claims are more likely to be determined by the application of law to specific facts. To that end, the Court’s opinion in New Products Corp ensures that future property disputes (e.g.. boundary disputes between neighbors) will not be resolved by juries infected with personal bias, but rather by judges applying solid, legal principles.
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