Friday, August 27, 2010

Faster Jury Trials??

Can tort attorneys representing injured parties co-exist with "tort reformers" seeking to reduce access to the courts? Well, in the area of attempts to reduce court backlogs, the answer to that question may be "yes", as evidenced by the recent passage of AB2284.

The Plaintiffs' personal injury bar in California is largely associated with the Consumer Attorneys of California ("CAOC"), who have a credo of "preserving and protecting the constitutional right to trial by jury for all consumers and championing the cause of those who deserve redress for injury to person or property and resisting efforts to curtail the rights of such injured persons." On the other end of the philosophical spectrum is the Civil Justice Association of California ("CJAC"), which is "dedicated solely to improving California’s civil liability system" by working the Legislature and the courts to reduce what it sees as "the excessive and unwarranted litigation that increases business and government expenses, discourages innovation, and drives up the costs of goods and services for all consumers." Yet these two groups appear to have worked together to see that AB 2284 was passed.

This bill (entitled the “Expedited Jury Trials Act”) provides a pilot program for quicker, streamlined jury trials in California that insurers, the plaintiff’s bar and defense attorneys all appear to be praising. Introduced by Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, the bill allow litigants to agree to format of faster, simpler trials in civil cases, that resembles a hybrid between a “high-low” arbitration and a traditional jury trial.

Under the act, the parties can agree to an eight-person or smaller jury (both sides would be limited to three peremptory challenges), with a three-hour time limit for both sides to present their cases. Before trial, both sides would agree to confidential "floor” and “ceiling” for damages, such that plaintiffs would be guaranteed at least the minimum payment and defendants would be assured a payment cap, regardless of the jury's verdict, to limit potential exposure. The jury would have no alternates and the courtroom would have no court reporter, unless a party agrees to pay for one. The jury's decision would be final and binding, unless the litigants discover fraud or misconduct.

Proponents say the voluntary system would not only cut litigation costs for plaintiffs, defendants and insurance carriers, but also help to ease the burden on courts.

Christopher Dolan, President of CAOC, described the bill to Law.com as an "unusual constellation of parties coming together" over the legislation. Meanwhile, CJAC President John Sullivan said the expedited jury trials would offer a middle path between arbitration or mediation and a laborious trial. "This fills the gap between the two," he said. "It has the benefits of a trial and more vigorous presentation of information, but is far more efficient than it would have been in a full-blown trial."

If the bill is signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the new rules could take effect next January. Under the terms of the bills, however, it is set to expire in January 2016, which should allow analysts to assess the relative success or failure of the process.

My read: this sounds like a great way, in smaller cases, for clients to all “have their day in Court”, at a much reduced cost.

[For a complete copy of the bill, click on this link: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/asm/ab_2251-2300/ab_2284_bill_20100818_amended_sen_v96.pdf ]

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