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Expedited Jury Trials

December 28, 2010

By: Edmund G. Farrell, III

On September 30, 2010, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law what is perhaps the biggest change in California civil procedure in many years. The Expedited Jury Trials Act (AB 2284) was developed over 18 months by a wide-ranging Judicial Council group that included advocates who otherwise agree on little. It is modeled on similar quick trials that have been offered in New York and South Carolina for at least five years. Treated as regular civil trials, cases would be heard — on a date certain — before a judge and a jury of eight. Each side is limited to three peremptory challenges and must put on their case in three hours, including opening and closing arguments, with a goal of concluding the case in one day. Participation is voluntary, verdicts — reached by six jurors — are binding, and appeals and post-trial motions are strictly limited.

The standard Rules of Evidence would normally apply, but the parties could agree to relaxed rules. Witness lists, exhibits, proposed jury verdict forms, jury questionnaires, and other materials, are exchanged 25 days prior to trial. Evidentiary objections will
be addressed at a pre-trial conference, eliminating disputes during trial.

A key element is the high/low agreement by both plaintiff and defense: the plaintiff is guaranteed some recovery and the defense's liability is capped. From the plaintiff's point-of-view, he receives some money, even if the jury decides he is entitled to nothing. On the defense side, the high may be the insurance policy limit or less. Insurance carriers avoid excessive judgments and bad faith claims, and a defendant's individual liability is also resolved. The high/low agreement is not disclosed to the jury.

Proponents of expedited trials believe cases where relatively small amounts of money, between $10,000 and $50,000, are most likely to go to quick trials. Relatively simple matters, such as small personal injury, slip and falls, or small auto accidents, are prime candidates. However, expedited jury trials are being used in higher value cases of up to $1 million in other states with results similar to verdicts awarded in longer trials.

The Expedited Jury Trials Act goes into effect on January 1, 2011. Murchison & Cumming, LLP, will be providing a seminar in the near future to address the ins-and-outs of the Expedited Jury Trial Act and what all insurance companies need to know. Look for further information on this in the near future.