Beasley Allen lawyers Cole Portis, who is Head of the firm’s Personal Injury Section, Graham Esdale and Kendall Dunson successfully represented their client this month in a jury trial in Mobile County Circuit Court in Alabama. According to Law.com | Daily Report, it was the first jury trial to be held in Alabama since courtrooms reopened from pandemic-mandated closures.
Lawyers have been adapting to the coronavirus restrictions since early this year through the use of technology, scheduling depositions, discovery and even some hearings through phone and video conferencing. This has worked remarkably well, connecting judges, lawyers, witnesses and others around the country and allowing justice to continue its course. But one piece of the puzzle has been missing – jury trials.
“It is very important that we resume jury trials. Justice delayed is justice denied,” Dunson said. “I understand that, initially, we had to stop, assess the situation and then decide how to move forward. The trial in Mobile shows that we can move forward safely. Our judge was determined to move our case forward following the safety protocols in place. You can find reasons not to proceed with jury trials but he was determined to meet any roadblock with reasonable solutions.”
In addition to being a fundamental right, jury trials also help to keep litigation moving forward and on time, said Esdale.
“You run into a dead-end absent a jury trial,” he explains. “Without a set trial date, it’s very hard to set other deadlines and keep things moving. The bottom line is, cases start grinding to a halt if you can’t have a jury trial.”
This is difficult for the people who are desperate to have their voices heard and move on with some resolution to what is often a traumatic event. In Mobile, we represented a woman whose fiancé was killed by a drunk driver, leaving her and their son behind. The driver that hit them and killed Dominic Turner had been overserved at a local casino, which then allowed him to leave intoxicated. The lawsuit was filed under Alabama’s Dram Shop laws, which is intended to hold businesses liable if they sell alcohol to a person visibly intoxicated and that person later causes injury or death to another person.
When it became clear that the trial in Mobile would proceed, Esdale says he reached out to a fellow lawyer in Mississippi, where trials had already resumed, for some advice about what to expect.
“He advised us to expect communications issues, with people naturally more spread out to observe social distancing, and that the courtroom would be set up differently to accommodate that. The benefit in Mobile was the court had already tried some criminal cases and hearings in person, so they had some procedures already worked out.”
The jury was seated in the gallery – the benches facing the judge’s bench where spectators normally sit – rather than in the jury box, along the side of the courtroom. The court had installed large monitors so that the jury could see the witness on a big screen. There also were microphones for the lawyers to help their voices carry. Because the jury was behind them rather than alongside them, it was harder for them to turn and address the jury without turning their back on the witness and judge, and posing the problem that their voice might not carry behind them where everyone could hear. Everyone wore masks or clear face shields, except for the judge and witness, who were protected behind plexiglass shields.
“I did not feel like the people were distracted,” by the safety protocols, Dunson says. “We have been dealing with these pandemic issues – masks, face coverings, social distancing – for many months now and most people understand we have to move forward and just do our best to be safe.”
Because the lawyers are used to being in the courtroom all the time, it probably was stranger to them to adapt to the new setup, Esdale says. On the other hand, it may have been a juror’s first time in the courtroom, so it was no stranger an experience than it would have been otherwise.
“I was so impressed with the jurors’ dedication to the process. They took their job seriously,” he said. “And once you got into the flow, you start thinking ‘what if they always tried cases like this?’ You’d just be used to doing things that way.” After a while, the strangeness faded away and it was like any other trial – fighting for a family who needed help to find a measure of relief in justice.
In the end, Mobile Greyhound Racing settled the case on Oct. 13 before the jury delivered a $12.4 million verdict.
“Was the settlement more than the verdict? No,” Portis told Law.com | Daily Report. “Was the client satisfied? Yes. We would have fought and fought and fought,” if she wanted it. But “our client was ready for it to be over,” he told Katheryn Tucker, a reporter with the Daily Report.
“She was ready to move on,” Esdale said. “This has been five years since this accident happened. She needed some finality and something that would help provide for her and her young son.”
The lawyers hope the trial in Mobile can serve as an example to other courts throughout the state that precautions can work to safely resume in-person jury trials.
“I think the ability to show that a trial can be conducted is good for everybody,” Esdale said. “It shows that nobody can rely on delays to avoid justice. I hope other circuits around the state will look at that as a benchmark for how to do things and start doing some more trials.”
Dunson said, “The Courts need to be open and civil cases have to be set for trial. If we don’t set cases for trial, the system cannot work. It is my hope that our trial in Mobile will give other judges and counties the confidence that we can move forward. The Courts are extremely important to our society in both civil and criminal matters. The only option is to find a way to proceed in such a way that keeps all involved safe, but to proceed.”