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Courts of Equity vs. Courts of Law – When Are You Entitled to a Jury Trial in Civil Lawsuits
In Colorado and Denver civil courts, unlike criminal courts, parties are not always entitled to a jury trial; instead, in civil courts whether or not you are entitled to a jury trial depends on what type of relief the plaintiff is seeking in lawsuit. The main distinction that determines whether a person is entitled to a jury trial in a civil case is whether the action is seeking legal or equitable relief. This distinction will be discussed further below.
The authority for this comes from the Colorado Constitution, which provides that “[the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate in criminal cases; but a jury in civil cases in all courts, or in criminal cases in courts not of record, may consist of less than twelve persons, as may be prescribed by law.” Colo. Const. art. II, § 23. Accordingly, only the right to a jury trial in criminal cases is guaranteed by the Colorado Constitution, a jury trial in civil trials is not.
Because the Colorado Constitution only holds that a person is absolutely entitled to a jury trial in criminal cases, Colorado courts have had to interpret when a jury trial is available in civil cases. In doing so, courts have looked to Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure (“C.R.C.P.”) 38 which provides some guidance as to when jury trials are available in the form of a list of actions where jury trials may be requested in civil cases. Generally speaking though, the main distinction as to when a jury trial is available is whether the action is brought in equity – where there is not right to a jury trial; or in law – where parties may demand a jury trial.
Differences between Courts of Equity and Courts of Law
The distinction between lawsuits seeking equitable or legal relief comes from the English common law system from which much of the American legal system is derived and where, previously there were two different court systems: courts of equity and courts of law. These days, however, most U.S. courts, including Colorado courts, are courts of general jurisdiction that hear cases in both equity and law. But, even courts of general jurisdiction still look to whether an action requests equitable relief or relief in law for determining whether a party has a right to a jury trial.
In particular, the main distinction between cases in equity and cases in law is the type of relief requested in the lawsuit. Traditionally, lawsuit in equity seek non-monetary relief, for example, an injunction or order from the court requiring a person take or stop a certain action. Other lawsuits in equity include seeking a declaratory judgment, specific performance for a contract, modification of a contract, or other non-monetary relief. In lawsuits seeking equitable relief there is no right to a jury trial; accordingly, these types of cases are tried to the judge in a bench trial.
In contrast, lawsuits seeking legal relief typically request monetary damages, such as damages for a breach of contract, personal injury or tort action, or damages for the recovery of real or specific property. Parties are entitled to jury trials in these cases where the jury is responsible for determining issues of fact, for example, whether a person breached a contract and the amount of monetary damages the non-breaching party is entitled to.
Right to a Jury Trial in Civil Cases under Colorado Law
Under Colorado law, the right to a jury trial in civil cases is limited to those cases specifically enumerated in C.R.C.P. 38(a). Kaitz v. District Court, Second Judicial Dist., 650 P.2d 553, 555 (Colo. 1982). Those cases are:
- where a trial by jury is provided by constitution or by statute
- actions for the recovery of specific real or personal property
- actions for money claimed due on a contract or for breach of contract
- and actions for injuries to person or property.
C.R.C.P. 38(a). Additionally, if a party is entitled to a jury trial under the rule, the party must make that demand within 14 days of service of the last pleading – i.e., the complaint or answer – and pay the requisite jury fee provided by statute. C.R.C.P. 38(b)
Where a lawsuit requests both equitable relief and relief in law, the presiding court must determine what the main thrust of the case is in order to determine whether the parties are entitled to a jury trial. Further, it is the nature of the complaint, as opposed to any counter-claims or defenses subsequently asserted that the trial court must look to in determining whether the main thrust of the action requests equitable relief or relief in law. First Nat. Bank of Meeker v. Theos, 794 P.2d 1055, 1059 (Colo. App. 1990)