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Kenney v. Scientific, Inc.

ELR Citation: 16 ELR 20856
Nos. No. L-51533-84, 497 A.2d 1310/(N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div., 03/17/1986) Jury trial claim

The court holds that plaintiffs are not entitled to a jury trial under the New Jersey Constitution in an action for damages allegedly caused by improper hazardous waste disposal at area landfills. The case was brought by 106 residents against 661 defendants, including the owners and operators of the landfills, generators, and transporters. Defendants have filed numerous cross-claims for contribution and indemnification, and a landfill owner has filed a third-party action that itself has spawned numerous cross-claims. The trial is expected to last at least six months to a year, not including deliberations. The court first holds that the case should not be divided into a series of separate trials because the issues are so interwoven that successive juries would have to hear all the testimony to understand their particular issue. Even bifurcation of the trial into liability and damage phases could result in significant overlap. In order to decide the appropriate award if a defendant is found subject to punitive damages in the liability phase, the jury in the damage phase would have to know the circumstances behind the first jury's conclusion to award punitive damages. Even if punitive damages are denied in the liability stage, the damage phase would be very lengthy. If the damage phase was divided into separate trials for each plaintiff or group of plaintiffs to protect jurors from months of service, each of these trials would be unnecessarily delayed by hundreds of peremptory challenges. Bifurcation would also result in overlapping witnesses.

The court next holds that a jury trial is not required under the New Jersey Constitution because this type of case was unknown at common law. The court observes that the procedural problems alone are so complex that the case is beyond the practical abilities of a jury to decide knowledgeably. The court notes that its holding is not affected by those cases holding that the factual complexity of a case should not be considered when deciding whether to grant a jury trial, since it is basing its decision on its conclusion that this procedurally complex case was not of a type known at common law.

The court, adopting the reasoning of a Third Circuit case, holds that this case will be too complicated and lengthy to be tried by a jury in accord with the due process guaranteed under the New Jersey Constitution. The jury would be required to resolve many complex questions of fact, such as: what toxic substances caused plaintiffs' alleged injuries, which generators and transporters produced and hauled which substances, whether each plaintiffs' particular injury was caused by these substances, whether defendant landfill owners, generators, and transporters were negligent, and what amount of damages are each of the plaintiffs entitled to. Further, the jury in this trial would be composed of persons not well-suited to deal with this technically complex case because people with jobs or family obligations would be excused due to the expected length of the trial. The court notes that a trial by judge will likely produce a more reasoned result because of the requirement that judges in nonjury trials make findings of fact. Finally, the court declines to further delay the case by putting off its decision on the jury issue until the trial date is closer.

[An earlier opinion in the case appears at 15 ELR 20403.]

Counsel for Defendants
Clyde A. Szuch
Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch
163 Madison Ave., CN 1945, Morristown NJ 07960-1945
(201) 267-3333

David J. Novack
Budd, Larner, Kent, Gross, Picillo, Rosenbaum, Greenberg & Sade
200 Park Ave., New York NY 10166
(212) 972-1967

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Denis Drazin
Drazin & Warshaw
25 Reckless Place, Red Bank NJ 07701
(201) 747-3730

Retired and temporarily assigned on recall.