Jury Trials and Government Entities: How a Car Accident Tested the Concept

In May 2004, an employee (Dauzat) of the City of Marksville backed an emergency fire department vehicle into another car containing Daisy Marcile and multiple passengers. Ms. Marcile and her passengers were injured and filed suit against the City of Marksville for damages.

Per La. R.S. 13:5105, a political subdivision of Louisiana cannot be tried by a jury unless it waives this prohibition and either the plaintiff or political subdivision requests a jury trial in the time provided by law. According to Arshad v. City of Kenner, any waiver must be a blanket waiver covering all cases, not a specific suit.

This statute has come under fire before. In Beauclaire v. Greenhouse, the Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled that the waiver provision (section D) of La. R.S. 13:5105 met the standards of the equal protection clause of the constitution, “as the statute allowed either party to demand a jury trial in accordance with the law once the political subdivision waives the the prohibition” and denied either party from seeking a jury trial when the prohibition had not been waived.

In Beauclaire, the entity sued, a school board, passed their waiver prior to the suit in question. Here, the City of Marksville passed a waiver for any pending or future lawsuit two months after Ms. Marcile and her passengers filed their suit against the city. The city then moved for a jury trial with its answer to the plaintiffs’ petition.

At the Supreme Court of Louisiana, the plaintiffs attempted to re-litigate Beauclaire, arguing that a political entity should not be able to pass an La. R.S. 13:5105(D) waiver and move for a jury trial, essentially controlling who makes the trial’s judgment. However, the court was not convinced the plaintiffs were denied equal protection because the waiver was passed after the filling of plaintiffs’ petition. Each side merely needed to be able to have an equal opportunity to request a jury trial, which the court held they did.

While the majority focused on broadening the holding of Beauclaire, Justice Knoll’s concurring opinion offers a clearer route to court’s answer to the question: Can a La. R.S. 13:5105(D) waiver be applied retroactively to cover cases already filed?

According to Article 6 of the Louisiana Civil Code, procedural laws, such as the selection of a jury trial, may apply retroactively, unless prohibited by other legislation. If there is intent to have a law apply retroactively then it shall, unless it would impair contractual obligations or disturb vested rights.

Here, the city’s waiver is procedural, and stated that it should apply to any pending lawsuit. Further, “The ordinance, rather than depriving plaintiffs of an existing right, grants a right to a jury trial to a party, who previously had no right to one.” The plaintiffs did not want a jury trial; but there is no right not to have a trial by jury. Therefore, a political subunit can retroactively waive the prohibition of jury trials against it.