Editorial: Keep day in court to just one day
Local courts in Michigan now have an option for resolving civil disputes more quickly, and with less inconvenience and uncertainty for all parties.
The Michigan Supreme Court authorized local circuit courts to voluntarily use summary jury trials for settling some civil lawsuits. If everyone agrees, summary jury trials limit the time in court and pre-determine the range of any awards ordered by the jury.
Doug Van Epps, director of the Supreme Court’s office of dispute resolution, says brevity and cooperation are the keys to success.
“The whole concept is to have an abbreviated trial that finishes in one day,” he says.
Every aspect of a civil hearing is shortened or reduced. In a four-day trial, attorneys might take a couple hours each for their opening statements. In the summary jury trials, they might take only 10 minutes.
The exact amount of time can vary because the Supreme Court guidelines give local officials flexibility. A number of things are negotiated before the trial begins, including the length of opening statements and a settlement range with maximum and minimum figures.
Both sides have to agree not only on the parameters of the trial but also on the settlements. If a jury finds for a figure higher or lower than the agreed upon range, either side can contest the decision. However, they cannot appeal the verdict if it falls within the agreed upon range, which is not initially disclosed to jurors.
Also, juries are downsized. A pool of only 10 jurors is established with six selected for the trial. For a verdict, only five jurors need to agree.
The idea for summary jury trials is not new. It goes back to the 1980s and they have been used in a number of other states.
However, Van Epps says the Supreme Court, in its effort to find more efficient ways to operate the judicial system, two months ago established guidelines for the trials here. He says the high court will monitor cases as they are conducted and review the findings.
The quick trial process is already receiving high praise. Detroit Attorney Steven Galbraith was part of the first summary jury trial conducted in Oakland County, a dog bite case where the only thing to be settled was the amount of the compensation.
“It worked out quite well,” Galbraith says. “It’s fast, efficient and cost effective — you don’t have costs normally incurred in a jury trial.”
Galbraith notes the process is intended for cases with smaller potential settlements, such as auto negligence, slip and fall lawsuits or property damage.
Summary jury trials are less conducive to major lawsuits where millions of dollars in settlements are at stake.
But for small, civil lawsuits, they promise to reduce court dockets, lessen the demand for jurors and save the litigants time and money.
The Supreme Court deserves credit for bringing efficiency to the legal process. Local courts should take advantage of this opportunity to make a day in court truly a day in court.