California Courtroom and Jury Trial Delays due to Pandemic

Many California courtrooms continue to be on virtual lockdown and for victims desperately awaiting a personal injury trial, justice appears to be getting further and further away.  These delayed cases represent people badly hurt in car accidents, injured on the job, victims of medical malpractice, and in some instances, people who may die before their cases reach a courtroom.

While many courtrooms across the state are, in theory, allowed to be hearing jury cases many are prioritizing criminal cases and ignoring civil claims for the time being.

As the nation is gripped in an apparent second surge of COVID-19 cases many states are already reinstating previous pandemic restrictions and quarantines. This trend may soon cascade to every state and that could mean trial extensions that began in March will soon see be extended out even further. This legal landscape is understandably terrifying to those awaiting verdicts and just hoping to be able to pay a mountain of hospital bills before they lose everything.

Los Angeles and San Francisco Court Delays

The push to utilize technology for remote court appearances and hearings hasn’t moved as fast as hoped. And in places where real efforts to open up courtrooms have been tried, localized COVID-19 outbreaks have struck and slowed the process. The state has extended the statute of limitations on many cases, and another extension will likely be necessary so that people who have waited two years or more don’t lose their right to a trial.

The wheels of justice have slowed the most in the largest population centers of California. The Los Angeles County Superior Court has put off all civil jury trials requiring a jury until 2021. The L.A. Courts will be focusing on the over 7000 criminal cases that are currently backlogged according to Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile.

In the Bay Area, some superior courts may or may not resume civil proceedings this year. NBC BAY AREA-TV reports they surveyed the nine Superior Courts serving the counties around the Bay Area. According to the responses, only five are still attempting to move forward with civil trials as of early November 2020.  San Francisco and Napa County are technically allowing civil proceedings but judges so far haven’t heard any cases due to litigants choosing to settle out of court or waiving their rights to a jury.

Obstacles for Personal Injury Victims During the Pandemic

While COVID-19 has put many of us at physical, emotional, and financial risk in 2020, for some insurance companies there have been benefits to the shutdown.

Insurance adjusters have always tried to wiggle out of providing fair compensation for accident victims, but now they can utilize a particularly effective pandemic strategy. The threat of a civil court trial would often encourage insurance firms to make victims a fair settlement offer, but now that bargaining tool for attorneys representing injured victims isn’t as strong.

Here are a few of the most difficult obstacles facing personal injury victims as they seek compensation in 2020.

  • Insurance Companies Refusing to Settle – Before COVID-19, insurance companies might extend a lowball offer of settlement to an accident victim. In response, an attorney protecting the client from a truly unfair offer could refuse the settlement and threaten to force the insurance company into court to resolve the issue. Insurance companies don’t like the expense of going to court, plus they might know they are in the wrong, so this was often a motivation for agents to extend a better settlement offer. For now, that tactic is a thing of the past. Since there is no timeline for when courtrooms will be able to resume full caseloads, insurance companies can offer very unfair amounts in settlements and victims may feel they can’t say no. Many victims have been dealing with escalating hospital bills and struggling with other costs of living expenses for months or years now. They may feel they have to accept a first offer, because they may go bankrupt while waiting on their turn in court.
  • Slow response – It’s not a new trick, but insurance companies can keep victims waiting for an unreasonable amount of time hoping to wear down their resolve and make them more desperate to accept any offer. Issues created by COVID-19 may also be to blame when insurance companies are slow to investigate claims, but no matter the reason, victims are the ones left to suffer and worry over financial hardships.
  • Loss of Employment – Even those victims who are able to return to work despite their injuries and illnesses may not have a job to return to. Their companies may have folded under the pressures of COVID-19 quarantines while they sat at home healing. Now they have mounting medical expenses and no incoming paychecks to help pay them off.
  • Use of Mediation – With little hope of a jury trial, a victim may feel compelled to try the services of a mediator or arbitrator. A judge can also order the use of a mediator in some lawsuits. Professional arbitrators, sometimes former judges and lawyers, can be expensive and the victim can be on the hook for half of the fees. Another drawback is that mediation isn’t usually helpful in complex cases and incidents involving severe injury. Many personal injury lawyers also feel that mediators tend to favor corporations and insurance companies.
  • Medical Care Delays – People may have a harder time getting their injuries fully documented by a doctor because of the limited availability of medical professionals during the pandemic. Victims may also be afraid to visit a doctor’s office and expose themselves to germs.

The Sad Wait As Dying Victims Hope for a Court Date

The side effects of a stalled justice system truly target those victims who are in the poorest health. They may be clinging to life due to an injury in an accident, or perhaps a workplace exposure to a harmful substance. If they pass on while waiting to get a court date, they might not see justice for themselves or be able to provide for their families when they’re gone.

NBC BAY AREA-TV’s investigative team documented the tragic plight of many terminally ill litigants who await a final act of justice against those who they believe made them sick. A California state law makes their predicaments even more hopeless. Unfortunately, a lawsuit involving a pain and suffering claim is no longer valid once the victim dies. That means the family could not continue moving the case forward and would receive zero compensation after losing a loved one.

On one positive note, NBC’s investigation has sparked a new push among state leaders. Dying victims are supposed to be given first access to court dates according to California law. Now lawmakers are calling for superior courts across the state to reveal whether they have violated that law by failing to prioritize those cases involving victims with little time left.

The Hope Courtrooms Can Open Their Doors Again

We are coming into the final weeks of 2020 and unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any chance California courthouses will approach any sort of normalcy by the end of the year. Victims of negligence, carelessness, and recklessness will likely remain in a holding pattern as they try to get justice and even basic assistance paying for their recovery from an accident. These are accidents that in most cases happened through no fault of their own. But now they’ve suffered an undue amount of time and will continue to suffer. To make matters worse, drivers are speeding more, putting others at risk for auto accidents. In the period between September 1st and October 31st 2020, CHP officers have issued more than 4,800 tickets for drivers traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

No one is safe from the devastating effects of this year’s pandemic, but let’s hope the lessons we’ve learned can be carried over into 2021 and the scales of justice can be rebalanced.  Perhaps judicial leaders can find new ways to hear civil cases using the safety that technology provides to deal out compensation to those who have been waiting too long for it.

 

Lee McFarland

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I write about current events which affect attorneys.