Litigating Remotely in the Age of Shelter in Place

The current shelter in place orders from the governor have affected businesses throughout California, and the legal profession is no exception. The Humboldt County Superior Court is closed, only handling criminal matters through remote “Zoom” appearances by counsel and defendants. Civil matters have been put on hold, jury trials continued, law and motion hearings rescheduled. The business of the civil justice system must still operate, just in different and challenging ways. Things lawyers took for granted, such as taking sworn testimony in person at depositions, or appearing in person at mediations, are currently not possible due to the restrictions on personal contacts. Lawyers, insurance company representatives, judges and mediators have had to come up with new ways to conduct business and do the work of the civil justice system.

A recent personal injury case handled by Janssen Malloy LLP partner Michael Crowley serves to illustrate the new methods required in the era of the coranavirus shutdown. Our client’s case arose out of a motor vehicle collision on Highway 101, when an auto parts delivery truck rear-ended our client on the freeway, after our client had stopped to avoid hitting a water tank that had fallen off a truck. Liability, medical causation of our client’s injuries (a shoulder and knee surgery) and the extent of her damages were all disputed by the defendant company. Our client and the defendant company’s employee driver’s depositions were completed, and the matter set for trial. As is common in litigation, the defense proposed mediating the case before a neutral party (the mediator). A date was set for mediation, and then the shut down order came down.

We conducted the mediation remotely, with all parties (plaintiff, defense counsel on behalf of the defendants, the insurance carrier’s claims supervisor, the mediator, and plaintiff’s counsel Mr. Crowley) appearing via a joint conference call, all from separate locations. The mediator served as the “host,” with the ability to mute certain parties into a “waiting room,” where those so muted could not hear or be heard, in order that confidential communications between the mediator and other parties could take place outside the general joint conference call. Certain confidential communications (such as between Mr. Crowley and our client, or between defense counsel and the insurance claims supervisor) occurred on a separate cell phone call, so that parties could return to the joint conference call after considering settlement offers or responses.

Although the remote proceedings were somewhat awkward and clunky and times, the matter was resolved, which is the whole point of alternative dispute resolution procedures such as mediation. An enforceable settlement agreement was hashed out, sent around electronically, signed and returned to the mediator, and the case was settled. The expense and uncertainty of result at trial for both sides was averted, and resources instead directed toward resolution. Video conferencing for depositions will just be part of the new normal until restrictions are lifted, and new ways of moving cases through litigation will be developed. It remains to be seen how jury trials will be conducted in the current pandemic environment.

Janssen Malloy LLP’s attorneys have already adjusted to the new environment the coronavirus has dictated, and are continuing to work efficiently to obtain justice for our clients.