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Are Remote Trials the Wave of the Future? – Florida’s First Remote Civil Damages Trial Results in Plaintiff’s Award Against a Bar Owner

Author: Nathan E. Malone

Guest Editor: David Kahn

September 1, 2020 8:30am

With the current health pandemic lingering on longer than most people expected, courts have been struggling to find ways to get cases moving forward in light of extended court closures and the inability to assemble jurors.  On August 11, 2020, a court in the Fourth Circuit for Duval County held a one day damages trial involving a plaintiff dancer and a bar owner.  Jurors were summonsed in the normal fashion, but given instructions for Zoom appearances.  Jury selection occurred all via the Zoom platform.  While admittedly not ideal for longer, more complicated cases, the process seemed to work for a simple one day damages trial.  Albeit the defendant was an empty chair at trial, so plaintiff was simply proving up her default case.

More states are experimenting with remote trials.  Texas, for example, has held fully remote jury trial pilots resulting in non-binding verdicts.  Another Florida court last month conducted a hybrid trial, where jury selection was remote, but the trial itself was in person.  California courts with larger capacity have been experimenting with assembling juries in gymnasiums and social distancing in the court room, but have not held any fully remote civil trial yet.  The debate continues about whether remote jury trials are a good idea.  Whether they are a “good” idea or not, it is expected more courts will follow Florida’s example and begin exploring more ways civil trials may be conducted remotely.

Judge Bruce Anderson and plaintiff’s attorney both admitted remote trials are not ideal, and cannot replace being in a live courtroom with people present with one another.  However, since what is ideal is not possible in this pandemic, more courts may be less willing to postpone live civil trials any longer, as the pandemic continues.  Also, even after the pandemic ends, our society will likely be social distancing and taking other precautionary measures long into the future, which may further prompt the need for a remote method of trying civil cases.

Remote trials do create some interesting challenges that could affect the outcome of a trial.  Jurors appearing via Zoom will not be able to be monitored as closely as in a live setting so they may have access to cell phones and social media during the trial.  In the Florida Zoom trial, court personnel were creating different zoom backgrounds to re-create the feeling of being in a live court room.  It is difficult to appreciate how some of these new and different aspects of remote civil trial will affect their outcome.

One positive result of remote trials is that jurors seem more willing to respond to their jury summons if they are only required to appear remotely.  Also, some courts have been making remote appearances easier for people with no computer access by shipping them the electronics, or providing access to public computers in a library.  This could potentially result in a hybrid system where jurors are assembled remotely, but appear personally for the trial.  Only time will tell.

TAKEAWAY: Though not ideal, civil jury trials may be the wave of the future, especially if it results in larger juror turnout.  As civil defense trial attorneys, civil litigators, and claims professionals, we must learn to employ the Tyson & Mendes methods in a remote setting.  Practicing by giving speaking webinars is a great idea for honing public speaking skills in a remote setting.

 

References:

  1. Law 360 : https://www.law360.com/personal-injury-medical-malpractice/articles/1300280/strip-club-hit-with-354k-verdict-in-pioneering-zoom-trial?nl_pk=588c44b4-0bf1-40ff-97f0-73ea86dedbe5&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=personal-injury-medical-malpractice
  2.   San Mateo County California Superior Court website.
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