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March 11, 2020

NY Appellate Court Holds Agreed-Upon Summary Trial Rules Trump Court Authority

A summary jury trial is a method of alternative dispute resolution that has become increasingly utilized across New York State. It involves relaxed evidentiary rules and shortened proceedings designed to conserve resources of both courts and litigants while still allowing disputes to be resolved by a jury of peers. Parties are permitted to stipulate to the format and method of a summary jury trial as long as the agreement is approved by the court. In the absence of an agreement, local summary jury trial rules govern.

The value of carefully negotiating a private summary jury trial agreement was highlighted in the Appellate Division, First Department’s recent decision in Vargas v. LaMacchia. In Vargas, the lower court sua sponte declared a mistrial, setting aside a summary trial jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Despite its characterization of the lower court’s actions as an “attempt to correct an admittedly erroneous evidentiary ruling” in the interest of justice, the First Department reversed and reinstated the jury verdict.

According to the First Department, the lower court’s declaration of a mistrial constituted reversible error because it violated the terms of the parties’ summary jury trial agreement. A summary jury trial agreement constitutes a legally binding contract from which neither the litigants nor the court can deviate. Accordingly, regardless of the extent of the error the lower court sought to correct, it was prohibited from declaring a mistrial and setting aside the jury verdict by the parties’ agreement.

In reaching its decision, the First Department contrasted the facts of Vargas with cases in which the parties’ summary jury trial agreements allowed for corrections of errors of law either explicitly through the terms of the agreement or by omission.

The Vargas case highlights the importance of both parties carefully drafting and negotiating the terms of the summary jury agreement. While the finality of a summary jury trial is typically viewed as one of its most desirable aspects, it may be prudent to specify certain scenarios in the summary jury trial agreement—such as when an obvious error of law has caused significant prejudice to a party—that give rise to post-trial motions and appeals. This type of provision would allow parties to enjoy the benefits of summary jury trials, such as lowered costs and shortened proceedings, while protecting themselves from unjust results based on obvious and significant errors of law.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Daniel Coleman, associate, at dcoleman@barclaydamon.com or another member of the firm’s Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.

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