My state's small claims court gives me a jury trial option. Should I take it?

Weighing the options to present a claim against a home contractor to a small claims court judge or to a jury.

Question

I’m suing my contractor in small claims court for the damage he caused to my property while he was supposed to be making basic repairs. When filing the lawsuit, there’s an option for a jury trial. What exactly would that mean, and should I take that option?

Answer

In many 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.

Some states, however, do allow jury trials for small claims cases. In jury trials, you will make your factual case to a group of your 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 – 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. Theoretically, juries in civil trials provide an objective cross section of society.

Strategically, should you use a jury if your state gives you the option? There is no definitive way of knowing whether a jury will be more or less sympathetic to you than to your contractor. 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 – for example, 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. This is especially true if your contractor “presents well” – that is, he’s a smooth-talker who has some charisma and is likely to charm a jury. In this situation, you might be better off with a judge, who is (probably) less likely to be smooth-talked.

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