Almost every Texas personal injury case has been altered by the pandemic. Going to court is far different now. For example, it is impossible to imagine the Texas Supreme Court (pictured above) holding a hearing on Zoom earlier this year. What does the future look like for legal proceedings?
Back when things were normal, Texas courts conducted about 200 jury trials a week. People that testified had no fear of getting sick and infecting others.
Our world changed for the worse this winter.
For example, Mr. Berenson ran the Cowtown Marathon on March 1st with no social distancing or masks worn by runners or the crowds of spectators.
But on March 12th, courthouses, businesses, and schools closed down. Jury trials ground to a halt.
The Supreme Court of Texas monitored this crisis with a number of emergency orders. The most recent one which took effect on October 1st further refined the procedures for trials, hearings, and other proceedings. Now
Fortunately, the tens of thousands of car accident claims that could be resolved without a lawsuit mostly proceeded as before.
The Supreme Court’s latest emergency order prohibits live trials between October 1st and December 1st for lower courts.
But finally, district and county court trials may begin to hold in-person trials. Any judge wishing to conduct them must apply to the local administrative district judge and the regional presiding judge and get their approval that addresses
Courthouses across Texas have been retrofitted with plastic shields, barriers, and other ways to separate participants. Thermometers, hand sanitizers, masks, and laptop computers have been purchased in large quantities.
Here in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), at least $300,000 has been spent to protect those who will be in courtrooms.
In addition, any court holding an in-person jury trial must have a system in place to ensure that no participant has had COVID-19 in the 30 days immediately before the trial date. The judge must also have a means of confirming that no participant has potential virus symptoms or recent close contact with an infected person. Social distancing and hygiene tools must be employed.
Some counties are proceeding with jury trials beginning next week, including ones in Dallas, McKinney, Austin, and San Antonio.
But the approval process is exacting and the infection rate reaches new highs every day.
We can expect Texas personal injury cases to mostly happen online in the coming months — and possibly for a long time to come.
While there were over 1.6 million cases handled by civil courts in Texas in 2019, they will see only a fraction of that number in 2020.
How will courts deliver justice? There are only two ways, in-person and by computer. Each has its pros and cons.
There is no substitute for an in-person jury trial. The parties and witnesses are present and can be scrutinized. Exhibits can be easily displayed and arguments made.
Despite technological advancements, there are drawbacks to conducting trials over a computer.
This is the most pressing problem with remote court proceedings. When you have twelve jurors in different locations using separate internet connections over an extended period, connectivity issues are practically guaranteed.
And some people do not have access to the internet or computers. It has been argued that this will skewer the jury panel to those with more means.
There is also the likelihood that some parties might struggle to hear everything others are saying due to sound quality issues.
These may not be serious enough to fundamentally impact the trial. However they can cause significant delays and be a source of frustration for everyone involved.
Any teacher will tell you how much more difficult it is to keep students engaged when giving remote lessons. Jurors are not children, but the same principles apply to an extent.
It is challenging to keep jury members focused on the legal issue at hand when they have the option of discreetly using their cell phones, watching television, or even leaving the room.
That is why the court bailiff collected the smartphones of jury members.
Discussions between large groups of people are more difficult when held remotely.
There are pros to holding Texas personal injury trials remotely. They are better than nothing. They limit the spread of COVID-19. And they can be more efficient.
For example, the Texas Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, and state district and county courts have been conducting hearings and trials remotely for several months.
However, those proceeding may have fewer moving parts. Witnesses may not need to be sworn in and testify, exhibits may not have to be admitted and analyzed, and legal issues might be controlled easier.
The first fully remote civil jury trial to reach a binding verdict finished in Florida in August. The jury awarded a Jacksonville woman $354,000, but the defendant did not appear to defend himself. (You can safely assume that the verdict would have been much different if he had an attorney arguing his position.)
In August, Texas conducted the country’s first criminal trial via Zoom. The jury in Travis County (Austin) found the defendant guilty in a simple traffic offense in a Justice of the Peace Court. The trial was an experiment. Again, this was not a simple trial.
The lockdown forced the legal world to quickly enhance its technology with positive results.
For example, depositions, hearings, and trials that used to require driving to offices or courthouses can now be handled more expeditiously from homes and offices.
The legal world of the future could conceivably be more streamlined, effective, and affordable.
Despite their drawbacks, virtual personal injury trials can be an effective way of resolving disputes, especially given our current circumstances.
Judges now have the power to compel anyone involved in a case to tell the court if they have had any COVID-19 symptoms in the recent past. They must also tell the court if they have had close contact with anyone who had the virus or exhibited symptoms.
The emergency order gives a list of the well-known symptoms.
The Texas Office of Court Administration made a number of recommendations about court proceedings during the health crisis in a report in August. The Supreme Court adopted most of these. The provisions will have a significant impact on trials in Texas in the future.
There are obvious problems conducting live trials. A federal court in Sherman had to postpone a trial today when at least one juror and attorney became ill. And we know that many people are infected but are asymptomatic or have false negative tests.
The judge noted that his Eastern District of Texas (which covers North Texas over to Beaumont and up to Texarkana) has conducted 20 total trials in the past five months. In a typical year, that number would probably be at least 200.
This most recent Supreme Court order expires on December 1st. With the rapid upswing in COVID-19 cases, it is not clear if the Supreme Court will allow in-person proceedings.
It is hard to fathom that people will want to sit in a room downtown, even if distanced and wearing masks, for extended periods of time. Most people don’t even want to go into a grocery store or sit on a plane.
In-person jury trials should be postponed until the COVID-19 infection rate is drastically cut.
Once there has been a huge reduction in the number of people who have been infected, we are likely to see a swift return to the courtroom across the state.
Through October, there have only been approximately 100 jury trials across the state. As a result, there is a tremendous backlog of cases awaiting trial. The number continues to grow.
We have to allow injured people their constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury trial. This is a serious problem that the legal community must solve.
Contact our office if you need any assistance with your Texas personal injury case.