To Zoom or Not to Zoom…That is the Question.

Author: Brianna Andrade

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March 1, 2021 12:48pm

March 2021 marks the year anniversary that jury trials seemingly ceased to exist as we once knew them – that is, before COVID-19 abruptly shifted the courtroom.  In the past year, jury trials have been ridden with unpredictability.  One can rarely read a legal document these days without at least some mention of COVID-19 and its impact on the overall timeline of a matter.  Are jury trials really a distant memory while still navigating midst of the COVID-19 era, or will innovation and the embrace of a new normal propel us forward?

For Seattle’s federal court district, enough is enough.  Within the past few months, Seattle’s federal court district has done what has repeatedly been described as the inconceivable by conducting not only one federal civil jury trial live over the internet, but multiple.  With their recent successes in combination with the growing urgency to move matters forward, Seattle federal court judges have not been shy to express their willingness to hold more civil jury trials remotely.  It does not seem they will be slowing down any time soon.

The Prototype

Of course, holding a civil jury trial during these times comes with plenty of raised eyebrows, speculation, and naysayers.  For example, can all types of cases with complex fact-patterns be expected to have a successful jury trial from start to finish?  Moreover, can we expect jury trials to be representative of the community, the pinnacle of jury verdicts to begin with?

In light of the genuine influx of concerns, a committee of Seattle’s federal court district put together a handbook for Zoom bench and jury trials.[1]  The handbook is for attorneys and can be accessed on the public website.  Another similar handbook used internally for judges and court staff provides a step by step explanation of how a jury trial would be conducted.  Seattle’s federal court district also reportedly worked on an orientation for their jurors and constructed an educational program so that everybody could understand how to use to use the Zoom platform, which was completed before the first jury trial run-through in 2020.

Trials… and Tribulations

With regard to the scope of cases, the first remote civil jury trial in 2020 in Seattle’s federal court district involved an elderly cruise ship passenger who was awarded $1.3 million over a fall.[2]  Another matter involved a former FedEx Freight employee who was awarded damages against the shipping company,[3] while a third civil jury trial included the insurer, who was ordered to pay nearly $1 million to a policyholder.[4]  As of February 2021, the first-ever patent jury trial to be conducted remotely was decided, awarding just over $4 million to a game controller maker.[5]

Admittedly, the civil jury trials via Zoom have not been seamless.  However, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman who is described as the “most experienced federal judge in the nation” when it comes to Zoom jury trials, reported the remote cases she has presided over had gone surprisingly well.[6]  With regard to the issue of jury representation, Judge Pechman believes she actually had a bigger representation of minorities on her remote jury trials than is typical.[7]  This is partially because Seattle’s federal court district made it easy for community members to participate.  For example, jurors did not have to drive from far distances to come to court, or drive in traffic, or run the risk of being exposed to COVID.  Another benefit is the cost-saving incentive of having witnesses from across the globe with the ability to testify with reduced expenses and expert witnesses who will not need to be paid for extensive travel time.[8]  As for unforeseen technicalities that have occurred, Judge Pechman believes the best lesson learned is to simply take some time and patience to work them out.[9]

Takeaway

The legal field is at a point of inflection.  Despite Judge Pechman’s noted benefits of her experience with remote civil jury trials thus far, it remains her hope that in-person jury trials will make a comeback in the near future.[10]  Nonetheless, she views the ability for courts to have remote jury trials to be critical.

With this in mind, it will take local judges and attorneys alike to be willing to quest into uncharted territory and try cases remotely.  Should the opportunity occur with the right facts and a willing judge, defense attorneys will need to be prepared to not only rise to the occasion, but to seize it.  As more and more courthouses across the country begin to meander into accepting the new reality of remote jury trials, defense attorneys should familiarize themselves with educational outlets such the Virtual Trials Bench & Jury, A Handbook for Attorneys[11] provided by Seattle’s federal court district and analogous models that are becoming readily available.

[1] Virtual Trials Bench & Jury A Handbook for Attorneys Revised 1/25/21; VirtrualTrialHandbookforAttorneys.pdf (uscourts.gov)

[2] Dallo v. Holland America; Case No. 2:19-cv-00865

[3] Goldstine v. FedEx Freight Inc., Case No. 2:18-cv-01164

[4] Hopkins v. Integon, Case No. 2:18-cv-01723

[5] Ironburg Inventions Ltd. v. Valve Corp., Case No. 2:17-cv-01182,

 

[6] How Seattle’s Federal Court Has Pioneered Zoom Jury Trials – Law360

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] https://www.wawd.uscourts.gov/sites/wawd/files/VirtrualTrialHandbookforAttorneys.pdf

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