In Utah, small claims court cases have always been heard by a judge, not a jury. Prior to 2016, a defendant sued in a Utah small claims court had no right to demand that a jury hear the claims brought against her. Even if a defendant appealed a final order in a small claims case to the district court, the district court judge would rehear the case and make a determination, without the option of a jury trial. As a result, the small claims court procedures provided plaintiffs with the ability to control whether a jury could be involved in deciding the plaintiff’s case. In 2016, the Utah Supreme Court analyzed the small claims court procedures to determine whether they adequately protected defendants’ constitutional rights.
In Simler v. Chilel, Chilel unsuccessfully sued Simler in small claims court for injuries allegedly arising from an automobile collision. See 2016 UT 23, ¶ 1, 379 P.3d 1195. Chilel appealed the small claims decision to the district court, and Simler demanded a jury trial. The district court denied Chilel’s request for a jury citing small claims court procedures. Simler appealed, arguing that the current state of the law unconstitutionally denies her right to a jury trial under the Utah Constitution.
In reviewing the case on appeal, the Utah Supreme court noted that Article 1, section 10 of the Utah Constitution guarantees the right of jury trial in civil cases. However, this right to a jury extends only to cases that would have been legally recognized at the time the constitution was adopted. After reviewing the nature and history of small claims actions, the court concluded that, at the time of the adoption of the Utah Constitution, small claims cases were available. Therefore, the then-existing small claims procedures unconstitutionally deprived defendants of the guaranteed right to a jury trial under Article I, Section 10. After Simler v. Chilel, the Utah statutes governing small claims actions were amended to correct this issue.
Now, the rules allow a defendant sued in small claims court to immediately transfer the case to the district court where a jury trial is available. See https://www.utcourts.gov/resources/rules/srpe/. Additionally, once a final order is rendered in a small claims matter, the rules allow either party to appeal the matter to the district court, wherein the matter may heard by a jury.