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Cashman Equipment Corporation, Inc. v. Cardi Corporation, Inc.

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

September 9, 2019

CASHMAN EQUIPMENT CORPORATION, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
CARDI CORPORATION, INC.; SAFECO INSURANCE CO., INC.; RT GROUP, INC.; JAMES RUSSELL; STEVEN OTTEN; CARDI MATERIALS, LLC; SPECIALTY DIVING SERVICES, INC.; HALEY & ALDRICH, INC., Defendants,
v.
WESTERN SURETY COMPANY; RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Third-Party Defendants.

          Providence County Superior Court Taft-Carter, J.

          DECISION

          TAFT-CARTER, J.

         This case involves disputes arising out of the construction and renovations of the Sakonnet River Bridge. Defendant Cardi Corporation, Inc. (Cardi) and Cashman entered into a subcontractor agreement, should Cardi be awarded the Sakonnet River Bridge project by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT).

         Before this Court is Plaintiff Cashman Equipment Corporation, Inc.'s (Cashman) Motion to Strike Defendants RT Group, Inc. (RTG), James Russell, and Steven Otten's Jury Demand. RTG, James Russell, and Steven Otten object to the motion. Cashman, Cardi, Cardi Materials, LLC and Specialty Diving Services, Inc. (SDS) have all consented to a bench trial. At issue here is whether the above-referenced action must be tried without a jury.

         I

         Legal Standard

         Generally, in Rhode Island, there is an inviolate right to a trial by jury. "The Rhode Island constitution declares in art. 1, sec. 15, that the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate." Briggs Drive, Inc. v. Moorehead, 103 R.I. 555, 557, 239 A.2d 186, 187 (1968) (citing Merrill v. Bowler, 20 R.I. 226, 38 A. 114 (1897)). However, "[t]hat declaration preserves the right to a jury trial in proceedings which were triable to a jury at the time of the adoption of the constitution; it does not create rights where none preexisted." Id. As such, if the right to a jury trial exists, "its origins must be found either in the constitution or in some legislative enactment." Id.

         At the federal level, "[i]t has long been settled that the Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury does not apply in actions against the Federal Government. . . . 'It hardly can be maintained that under the common law in 1791 jury trial was a matter of right for persons asserting claims against the sovereign.'" Lehman v. Nakshian, 453 U.S. 156, 160 (1981) (quoting Galloway v. United States, 319 U.S. 372, 388-89 (1943)). Similarly, in Rhode Island, "under the common law, the state, as well as a municipality, enjoyed sovereign immunity, which could be waived only by the state's deliberate and explicit waiver." Graff v. Motta, 695 A.2d 486, 489 (R.I. 1997) (citing Mulvaney v. Napolitano, 671 A.2d 312, 312 (R.I. 1995)). It follows that since no right to a jury trial existed for individuals asserting a claim against the State of Rhode Island prior to the adoption of the state constitution, parties are only entitled to the right of a jury trial through legislative enactment. See Briggs Drive, Inc., 103 R.I. at 557, 239 A.2d at 187 (citing Ronci Mfg. Co. v. Director of Pub. Works, 99 R.I. 723, 725, 210 A.2d 585, 587 (1965)).

         II

         Analysis

         Here, the applicable statute provides that:

"[a]ny person, firm, or corporation which is awarded a contract subsequent to July 1, 1977, with the state of Rhode Island, acting through any of its departments, commissions, or other agencies, for the design, construction, repair, or alteration of any state highway, bridge, or public works other than those contracts which are covered by the public works arbitration act may, in the event of any disputed claims under the contract, bring an action against the state of Rhode Island in the superior court for Providence county for the purpose of having the claims determined" and that "[t]he action shall be tried to the court without a jury." G.L. 1956 § 37-13.1-1(a) (emphasis added).

         Therefore, under this statute, the Rhode Island General Assembly has relinquished the State's sovereign immunity as it relates to actions involving contracts with the State for the design, construction, repair, or alteration of a bridge. However, this statute clearly states any action of this type "shall be tried to the court without a jury." Id.

         RTG questions whether Cashman's claims, since none are directed specifically at RIDOT, fall under § 37-13.1-1. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has not addressed the issue of whether § 37-13.1-1's requirement of a bench trial applies in cases such as this, where the original case is brought by a subcontractor against the party to a public works contract with the State. However, our Supreme Court has stated that it "find[s] it obvious that the Legislature intended to have a judicial determination concerning those disputed claims which arise under a public-works contract. The relevant phrase . . . is 'disputed claims.' The Legislature was clearly limiting a plaintiff's cause ...


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