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How a Defendant’s Discovery Violations Can Waive the Right to Trial by Jury

April 30, 2019 By Matthew J. Gannett

The Maryland Constitution guarantees the rights of parties to a jury trial when the amount in controversy exceeds $15,000.  It is well-established that the right to a jury trial may be waived by failing to assert the right.  However, the Court of Special Appeals recently affirmed that a Defendant’s egregious discovery violations may lead to the surrender of the Defendant’s right to jury trial.

            In the case of Charles Peterson v. Evapco, Inc., the Court of Special Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling that the plaintiff was entitled to withdraw an election for jury demand despite the objections of defendants.  238 Md. App. 1, 288 A.3d 210 (2018).  In the case below, Appellants (who were the defendants) timely answered Appellee’s complaint and both parties demanded a jury trial.  As the parties proceeded with discovery, the trial court found that Appellants wrongfully spoliated discoverable information and entered judgment in default against the Appellants.  Therefore, the case was to proceed on the issue of damages only.  The Appellees sought to withdraw the demand for jury trial, which the Appellants opposed.  The trial court granted Appellees’ request to withdraw the jury demand.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  First, the Court of Special Appeals found no abuse of discretion with the trial court’s entry of default judgment as a sanction for discovery violations.  Second, the Court found that since Appellants were in default, they had no right to a jury trial on the issue of damages.  The Court explained that Maryland Rule 2-433(a) provides that when the court enters a default for a failure of discovery “it shall preserve the plaintiffs’ right to a jury trial.”  The Court found that this rule “limits to the plaintiff the right to request a jury trial to determine damages after the court enters a default judgment.”  Peterson, 238 Md. App. at 58, 288 A.2d at 244.  Moreover, Appellees were free to withdraw their demand for jury trial without Appellants’ consent.  Maryland Rule 2-325(f) provides that “an election for trial by jury may be withdrawn only with the consent of all parties not in default.”  The Court reasoned that since the Appellants were in default, the Appellees “were free to withdraw their election [for jury trial], and Appellants, in default, were left with no right to object or request a jury for the remedies hearing.”  Peterson, 238 Md. App. at 58, 288 A.2d at 244.  Thus, while Maryland litigants have a constitutionally protected right to a trial by jury, the Court of Special Appeals found that such right is effectively waived by egregious discovery violations.