South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, July 2009, #3.
South Carolina's Fast Track Jury Trial: An Inventive and Inexpensive Way to Resolve Cases
South Carolina LawyerJuly 2009South Carolina's Fast Track Jury Trial: An Inventive and Inexpensive Way to Resolve CasesBy Professor Steven Croley, E. Paul Gibson and Stephanie A. NyeIn June 2009, the S.C. Supreme Court began a fast track jury trial pilot program in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. A fast track jury trial is a consensual trial before a reduced jury panel of six people with streamlined rules of evidence. Generally, a fast track jury trial is identical to a regular common pleas jury trial except there are variations in the process to promote efficiency. The beauty of the fast track jury trial is in its flexibility-the process is governed entirely by the agreement of the parties. The fast track jury trial process has many advantages beyond its efficiency. One notable advantage is that it provides a class of litigants with access to the civil litigation system while avoiding the common criticisms of traditional litigation-high costs, unpredictable damage awards and evidentiary biases.
Origination of the fast track jury trial
In the 1980s, a few federal and state courts experimented with a procedure called the "summary jury trial." This innovative process never took wide root, although it had several promising features.
The summary jury process was designed to be both quick and inexpensive. First, as the term suggests, summary jury trials were short. Indeed, in some jurisdictions litigants had to try their cases in just an hour, which allowed that litigants little more than an opportunity to summarize their cases to the jury. More commonly, however, summary jury trials lasted up to one full trial day. Second, many of the rules of evidence were relaxed. For example, lawyers could read deposition testimony to the jury for almost any purpose, not just for impeachment purposes. Lawyers could also simply summarize or characterize deposition testimony to the jury, without reading it verbatim. In addition, the rules of hearsay were relaxed. For example, medical hearsay was often permitted, allowing parties to explain the contents of medical records or what a doctor said on a particular issue to the jury. This process saved time and money because attorneys did not have to establish foundations, authenticate records or call witnesses to demonstrate factual elements of their case. The parties also saved substantial costs because they did not have to pay expert witnesses to appear in court.
Trial judges presided over summary jury trials in a routine manner. However, the juries could be characterized as "mini-juries," sometimes comprised of as few as four jurors. These mini-juries were also merely advisory because the parties were not required to adopt the verdict. The summary jury trial was essentially another form of alternative dispute resolution, even though the process was often involuntary, particularly in the federal courts.
Advocates of the early summary jury trial championed the process on two grounds. First, summary jury trials helped with docket control. During a period when many argued...