Taking a Civil Case to Trial Post-Coronavirus
The world looks very different than it did just two months ago. Terms like “shelter-in-place” and “social distancing” have become commonplace. With some states making the decision to re-open their commerce and businesses, our courts will have to reopen for the sake of civil liberties and legal rights.
The landscape of taking a civil case to a jury trial in a post-coronavirus world is admittedly one in which there is no legal or social precedent, however, trials will resume in some form, and it will be very important to adjust to the new conditions. There are two areas of concern: the physical logistics, and the changes in jurors’ mindsets. As for the logistics, the courts will have to devise ways to make gathering together to be chosen, listening to a trial, and deliberating safe for everyone.
In all cases to recover significant money compensation, a person has the constitutional right to a jury trial. With a minimum of a 12-person jury, courts are going to have to discover an immediate solution for how to carry out jury trials in a post-coronavirus world, which may include continued recommendations for social distancing.
Even if everyone wears masks, jurors may not be comfortable sitting near other jurors, or even in an enclosed courtroom for hours on end. Even if the jurors are spread out throughout the spectator area, evidence has shown that some coronavirus in droplets may remain in the air for up to three hours, possibly infecting anyone in that space.
If jurors end up viewing testimony or other evidence from a closed captioning system, will they continue to pay attention as closely? Will the jurors be able to get a sense of the emotional state of a victim or defendant through a camera? Will the juror empathize with any of the testimony if they are physically removed from the persons testifying? Will a compromised jury process lead to more appeals? Will jurors be allowed to be excused from jury duty if they have risk factors that make them (or their family members) more vulnerable to COVID-19?
While everyone being in the same room is always preferred, it may have to be sacrificed for the safety of all, depending on how the trajectory of the post-coronavirus world develops.
If the jury landscape changes substantially enough, it is possible that more attorneys will request bench trials, to remove the challenges and health risks that may accompany a jury trial. Agreeing to a bench trial means that the judge will ultimately decide the case, instead people in the community. It is possible that this will lead to more settlements prior to trial, as both sides may not want to risk their fate resting in the hands of only one person when they can agree to make a compromise between themselves. Even if an injured plaintiff is willing to agree to a bench or judge trial, the defense would also have to agree. In some cases defense counsel is convinced that juror skepticism about people suing for injuries makes a jury trial better for them.
Currently, many courts are simply closed. Some are offering certain types of legal procedures to be done through teleconferencing or videoconferencing. Jury trials are subject to lengthy continuances in some courts. Defendants typically love delay; at the least, they can hold the money longer.
Civil Court Cases and a Global Pandemic
Outside of the logistics of opening the courthouses again, and determining some way to keep jurors, judges, attorneys, and clients safe, there is the emotional component to this process that cannot be understated. Jurors may feel anxious being in a courtroom so closely to other people and take less time with deliberation simply to get the whole process over faster. And, with all the pain and misery and worry of this pandemic, it may be hard to get people to really connect with a plaintiff’s harms and losses, unless they are catastrophic. Will a juror be sympathetic enough to a plaintiff or defendant, or even be able to focus on the evidence presented in a civil case when they have economic and emotional worries on their minds?
In other cases, with unemployment claims at all-time highs, and children out of school due to a global pandemic, the last place a juror wants to be is away from work or their home. I expect to see lots more jurors claiming hardship exemptions from service.
Contact an Experienced Attorney
You still have a constitutional right to ensure your legal rights are protected even during this unprecedented time in our modern history. Contact a compassionate member of our legal team at Callaway & Wolf today at 415-541-0300 to schedule a free personal consultation in our San Francisco office. Or, if you prefer, send us a confidential message on our contact notepad, and you will receive a prompt response.