Column: What happened to all the trials?

Greg Galler

Greg Galler

By Gregg Galler

Many people assume that judges spend most of their time presiding over jury trials. In fact, on average nationwide, less than 5 percent of cases ever go to trial. This surprises a lot of people. Where do all the cases go? There are a number of ways that cases can be resolved without a trial.

A lawsuit begins when a plaintiff serves a written claim, called a “Summons & Complaint,” upon a defendant. The defendant has 20 days to serve a written answer to the claim. A defendant who does not timely answer is deemed to be in default. The plaintiff can be awarded a default judgment for the relief sought in the complaint. Failing to answer is treated as the defendant’s agreement with the claims in the complaint.

Other cases are dismissed because the case is abandoned. I see this with divorce cases where the parties are pro se (without attorneys). Family law can be complicated. Pro se parties can have a hard time complying with the law’s requirements. Judges are not allowed to prepare cases for parties. Judges are neutrals who review the case. A judge can’t ethically prepare a case and then later objectively review it. Accordingly, cases that sit for too long without anything happening will be dismissed (but can usually be filed again later).

Some cases are dismissed because the complaint fails to assert a legally sufficient claim. Let’s assume a silly example. A neighbor thinks he has the coolest car on the block. He then learns that the fellow next door just bought the exact same car. He sues to force his neighbor to sell it. As you don’t have a right to control your neighbor’s choice of car, the claim would be dismissed in a motion for judgment on the pleadings. While this example is silly, it illustrates that just because someone is unhappy, it does not mean they can maintain a lawsuit.

Other cases are resolved by a process known as summary judgment. It is important to understand that trials are only needed when there are facts that the parties dispute. Jurors decide facts. Judges apply the law to those facts. If there are no facts in dispute, the judge applies the law and renders a decision. No trial is needed.

Finally, in most cases the parties voluntarily settle their dispute. This keeps control of the case with the parties. There are no slam-dunk lawsuits. Anything could happen. One retired judge used to say, “A bad settlement beats a good lawsuit because at least you know what you’ve got.” For this reason, most cases are eventually voluntarily settled by the parties. Sometimes the parties seem to play a game of “chicken” and wait until the eve of trial before they settle. But they normally do settle.

In the end, our judicial system is designed with the assumption that few cases will actually need trials. If more cases did need trials, we would also need a lot more judges, court staff and courtrooms.

Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at judgegreggaller.com.

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