The United States Constitution provides in the Seventh Amendment that “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law” Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court has not applied this particular amendment to the states. In other words, at this time the individual states are not required to comply with the provisions of the Seventh Amendment.
However, the State of Georgia Constitution of 1983 guarantees the right to a jury trial, unless a defense is not filed, which results in a default judgment in favor of the Plaintiff.
[important]ARTICLE I. SECTION I. PARAGRAPH IX provides as follows: Right to trial by jury; number of jurors; selection and compensation of jurors. (a) The right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate, except that the court shall render judgment without the verdict of a jury in all civil cases where no issuable defense is filed and where a jury is not demanded in writing by either party.[/important]
In the 1960s the Georgia Legislature enacted O.C.G.A. §9-11-56 as part of the Civil Practice Act. This code section provides a trial court to grant a summary judgment in a case where there are no genuine issues of material fact. In other words if a Defendant or even a Plaintiff can clearly show that there are no factual issues in dispute requiring jury resolution and that a judgment as a matter of law is warranted then the case is summarily adjudicated by the trial judge. The key here is that there can be no real issues or disputes regarding the facts of the case. This includes the reasonable interpretation of factual issues. If reasonable minds can differ on the interpretation of facts or if facts are disputed otherwise then the case must go to a jury trial for resolution of the factual disputes.
In theory this sounds great. Why waste the parties’ money and time, and the court’s time, to empanel a jury of twelve (12) people to listen to facts that are not in dispute? What would there be for a jury to decide? However, in practice the summary judgment is often abused. It has become the standard course of procedure for a Defendant to file a Motion for Summary Judgment, even if facts are clearly in dispute. Often it is filed at the very beginning of the case, before all of the facts are even discovered. Of course most often the trial court will deny summary judgment if there remain issues of fact in dispute. But, there are many times when the trial court errs and grants summary judgment when it should not be granted. This results in an appeal. Now the very instrument which was intended to save time and money and to simplify the legal process has created more complications, and a much more costly legal battle.
One example of this is the case of Johnson V. RLI Insurance Company which involves a summary judgment granted by Walker County Superior Court, and was directly appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals immediately dismissed the case, because in its opinion the appeal involved an Order of Dismissal, not a grant of Summary Judgment. On Certiorari in the Georgia Supreme Court the Appellants, Johnson, the Appellee, RLI agreed that the appeal should have been allowed to proceed as a direct appeal of a grant of summary judgment. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed, reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision, and the case was remanded to the Court of Appeals for review as an appeal from a grant of summary judgment.
On remand the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed, without opinion, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, under Rule 36 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals. Will the Georgia Supreme Court again grant Certiorari to review the latest decision in this case? How much longer will this case proceed, and how much more money will be spent to “expedite” the litigation and save money? Will the Constitutional right to a jury trial ultimately be upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court, and held “inviolate”?
Continue to follow The Law and You in Chattanooga for more on this issue as well as progress on Johnson, et al V.S. RLI Insurance Company