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The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the nation’s court systems in ways that could reshape how cases are handled, and for the trucking industry, legal experts believe it could have a long-term effect on how juries view cases involving motor carriers.
“Never in our careers have we ever encountered something quite like this — a pandemic that has not just slightly changed business as usual, but has completely changed business as usual,” Mike Langford, a litigator for Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, P.C., said during a recent webinar. Langford and other attorneys said not only is the virus delaying civil trials for months — or probably longer — but it likely will impact the operations of courts and the way attorneys litigate cases.
Broadly, questions are already swirling around how delays for civil trials might affect financial out-of-court settlements, whether civil trials can be conducted in small courtrooms where social distancing and face coverings are required, and if virtual depositions, mediations and pre-trial hearings can offer practical solutions to mounting case backlogs.
Specific to trucking, transportation attorneys suggest civil juries may have more empathy for truck drivers who risked their health to keep store shelves stocked during the pandemic, a factor they said could affect consideration of financial judgments against motor carriers.
“We can remind juries that these are the same folks that brought you your groceries,” said attorney Rob Moseley of Moseley Marcinak Law Group LLP in Travelers Rest, S.C.
He also believes trial delays are destined to be a major challenge. “I think we’re going to see quite some time before somebody says they have a plan for trying to catch the docket up,” Moseley said.
For trucking, those backlogs may persuade plaintiffs’ attorneys to settle in a timely manner, said Ted Perryman, an attorney with the St. Louis firm of Roberts Perryman, P.C. So, too, might the shift in public perception of truckers; he noted that many of the billboards featuring negative portrayals of truckers that used to dot the interstates have come down, and said insurance companies already are showing willingness to settle claims more quickly.
“It’s clear that the system is groping for ways to try and get through this,” said John Fatino, a transportation attorney with the Des Moines, Iowa-based law firm of Whitfield and Eddy. He noted that solutions being considered vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from large cities to rural areas. But some of the challenges are the same.
“One answer could be for judges to mandate shorter trials,” Fatino said. “That would impact how I try my case. Do I move it along in a faster fashion? Can I present evidence in a more powerful way?” He added, “Another issue I’m struggling with is how responsive are jurors going to be to serve? Will there be a fear of coming back to the courthouse, fear of the public? If they’re self-employed, is there going to be some economic pressure for them not to show up, blow off a summons?”
“In St. Louis, the legal community is talking about doing one or two civil jury trials a week for the entire jurisdiction,” Perryman said. “Before the pandemic, the average was 15 to 20 civil jury trials.”
Rich Pianka, deputy general counsel for American Trucking Associations, said the pandemic actually may help the federation’s efforts to persuade Congress and state legislatures to enact legal reform measures. Congress is exploring legislation that would protect businesses from liability of COVID-19-related lawsuits, he noted, adding that now is as good a time as any to educate them that trucking should not be the victim of the plaintiffs’ bar “looking for any jackpot.”
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