Suing Contractor in Small Claims Court: Should I Take Jury Trial Option?

While the jury may be sympathetic to a plight they've possibly found themselves in, a judge is in the best position to sort out any complex legal questions or the fine print found in your contract.

On occasion, a disgruntled homeowner might sue a contractor in small claims court for damage caused to the property while the contractor was supposed to be making basic repairs. Usually this means a quick, informal hearing in front of a judge. Some states' small claims court systems, however, offer an option for a jury trial. What exactly would that mean? Should you take that option?

Judge or Jury: How to Choose?

In most states, small claims cases are decided exclusively by judges or magistrates. These are sometimes referred to as "bench trials," because both parties "approach the bench" and make their arguments to the judge. Judges understand that no one in the room is a professional, and guide the proceedings along, asking questions as appropriate.

Some states, however, do allow jury trials for small claims cases. In this setting, you would make your factual case to a group of peers (sometimes five, seven, or nine people, depending on the court's rules).

While the judge will still instruct the jury on the legal issues; for example, what it means to have breached a contract for services; the jury will decide, factually, whether the contract was actually breached. These will be people drawn from your state whom you and the defendant have never met before. In theory, juries in civil trials provide an objective cross section of society.

There is no definitive way of knowing whether a jury will be more or less sympathetic to you than to your contractor.

Consider Which Side They're Likely to Sympathize With on Principle

As a general matter, many people have had experiences with workers or home-repair companies that have not performed as they promised. For better or worse, people hold various negative stereotypes regarding contractors.

If you have graphic evidence of the contractor's mistakes, such as pictures of your flooded basement or large photos of sloppy tiling in the bathroom, a jury of fellow homeowners in your community might be sympathetic.

However, juries also tend to favor small business owners. If it seems like you're making unreasonable demands on a small business, the jury could quickly turn against you.

Consider How Convincing the Contractor Is in Person

A lot tends to depend on word of mouth in cases to do with home repairs. If your contractor "presents well," that is, is a smooth-talker who has some charisma and is likely to charm a jury, you might be better off with a judge. The judge's experience means he or she is (probably) less likely to be smooth-talked.

Consider How Complex Your Case Is

Presenting your case to a judge might also be preferable if the facts of your case are particularly thorny.

For example, if you had multiple subcontractors, a lengthy written contract, and/or many pieces of written evidence that need close consideration by someone experienced with sorting out such minutiae, you might confuse a jury with your presentation. A judge's experience and concentration might be advantageous.

In short, there is no definitive answer to the question of whether juries or judges are "better." It depends on many factors, including the complexity of your case, your ability and comfort with public speaking, and your contractor's likely charisma (or lack thereof).

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