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Expedited jury trials offer all litigants their day in court

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Jury BoxA pedestrian who was struck by a car and suffered injuries that cost her upwards of $25,000 in medical bills and lost wages wants to sue the driver who was unquestionably at fault. The victim’s harms are substantial, but not astronomical, and she has trouble finding a lawyer to take the case. Should the matter ever go to trial, however, all the parties, including the driver’s insurance carrier, face expensive litigation costs.

If legislation pending in Sacramento becomes law, people involved in this scenario may find relief in an expedited jury trial, a streamlined method for handling certain civil cases in a more cost-effective manner for the litigants and the courts. The proposal enjoys wide support from plaintiff and defense lawyers, the Judicial Council, consumer advocacy groups and CalChamber, representing the state’s business interests.

“I think it has great potential,” said Jeff Fuller, vice president and general counsel of the Association of California Insurance Companies. “It offers an approach that’s fair to both sides. You give it your best shot and at the end of the day you go home.”

The Expedited Jury Trials Act (AB 2284), developed over 18 months by a wide-ranging Judicial Council group that included advocates who otherwise agree on little, is modeled on similar quick trials that have been offered in New York and South Carolina for at least five years.

The idea enjoys wide support, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary House, who chaired the group, because “it’s something people can choose if they want. Knowing that it’s a choice not being thrust upon litigants and the bar has made it very appealing to everyone.”

Mike Belote, a lobbyist for California Defense Counsel, said the level of agreement about the proposal is remarkable but explained it offers something for all stakeholders — those interested in controlling costs as well as those interested in preserving access to the courts. Expedited jury trials, he added, offer the potential for dramatically changing the very nature of civil disputes.

Treated as regular civil trials, cases would be heard — on a date certain — before a judge and a jury of eight. Each side is limited to three peremptory challenges and must put on their case in three hours, including opening and closing arguments, with a goal of concluding the case in one day. Participation is voluntary, verdicts — reached by six jurors — are binding, and appeals and post-trial motions are strictly limited.

The standard rules of evidence would normally apply, but the parties could agree to relaxed rules. Witness lists, exhibits, proposed jury verdict forms, juror questionnaires and other materials are exchanged 25 days prior to trial. Evidentiary objections will be addressed at a pretrial conference, eliminating disputes during trial.

A key element is the high/low agreement by both plaintiff and defense: The plaintiff is guaranteed some recovery and the defense’s liability is capped. From the plaintiff’s point of view, he receives some money, even if the jury decides he is entitled to nothing. On the defense side, the high may be the insurance policy limit or less. Insurance carriers avoid excessive judgments and bad faith claims, and a defendant’s individual liability also is resolved. The high/low agreement is not disclosed to the jury.

Proponents of expedited trials believe cases where relatively small amounts of money — between $10,000 and $30,000 — are involved are most likely to go to quick trials. Relatively simple matters, such as small personal injury, slip-and-falls or small auto accidents, are prime candidates.

Dan Pone, senior attorney in the Judicial Council’s Office of Governmental Affairs, said the proposal offers a win-win for all the parties. Plaintiffs get their day in court, the case is heard quickly and less expensively. Defendants and their insurance companies can get guaranteed maximum exposure and more finality.

From a judge’s perspective, said House, the shorter trials use fewer court resources and provide greater access to justice for litigants.

The proposal does not limit cases to type or amount of money, Pone said, explaining, “This is a creative approach to resolving litigation and we felt it shouldn’t be limited.”

He said there is no way to quantify how much money expedited jury trials might save, “but in other states, they indicate it’s less expensive for plaintiffs, defendants and insurance companies, and the courts save money (by using) fewer jury resources and clearing out backlogs.”

Fuller said insurance companies spend “a lot of money” on transaction costs, arbitrations, settlements and trials. “My members, especially people who work at the trial level, say they expect this would be a useful device for dealing with small cases where it’s just not worth a full-blown jury trial but they can’t settle for whatever reason.” He estimated the average insurance claim is for $10,000 to $12,000 and suggested many of those matters could be resolved through expedited trials.

San Francisco attorney Chris Dolan, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, suggested that once expedited jury trials become established, they also could be suitable for high value cases with limited issues. “They may be appropriate if damages are not in dispute but the issue may be liability or comparative fault,” he said. “You may be able to resolve some threshold impediments” in a day.

Dolan estimated expedited jury trials could reduce the cost of a simple jury trial by 80 percent, savings achieved through reduced hours for lawyers, presentation of witnesses, limited discovery, jury and court reporter costs and other out-of-pocket costs.

House said expedited jury trials are being used in higher value cases of up to $1 million in other states with results — for both plaintiffs and defendants — similar to verdicts awarded in longer trials. In addition, judges are seeing angry jurors who do not want to serve for lengthy periods during a bad economy. “If you want a jury trial of a short nature, this is a good option,” she said. “Larger cases could start taking advantage of this right away.

“We’re only limited by our imagination and what people are willing to agree to,” House added. “This could open doors to other creative ways to deal with case management.”

The bill is scheduled for an Aug. 2 hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee and then will go to the Senate floor for a vote. It must then go to the Assembly for a concurrence hearing. If passed and signed by the governor, it authorizes the Judicial Council to create court rules that Pone said will be implemented Jan. 1.

The rules will apply to all counties, but each court will decide how to offer speedy trials. If the demand is high in larger counties, courts may create separate divisions or appoint a particular judge to handle the expedited trials.