There was a time I prepared a Civil Jury Verdicts Column every month. And in almost all cases, the reports came right out of our Superior Court in Martinez. Back then the Court statistics showed somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 or so civil cases to verdict in Martinez Superior Courts. As the years have passed, that number dwindled to 15 or so each year. Now of course I know the mention of those statistics always causes heartburn for the PJ, but there is a good reason for the decline.
I have been told that the Civil Jury Verdicts column is a very popular column. Sad to say I write only a couple of columns a year at this time. And as you have heard me say too many times: “I cannot write about a trial if no one reports it to me.”
Let’s start with a little history to get a perspective. When I was first asked some years ago to take over writing the column, the Court sent to me monthly reports on civil trials. The reports included both civil jury trials and civil bench trials. The report listed the parties, the attorneys, the judge and the result. From those reports I was able to send a form out to all the attorneys which included an easy framework by which to report on the respective cases. And although only about half the attorneys responded, I still had many verdicts to report. Keep in mind also at the time we were not reporting on cases in the Municipal Courts, but only Superior Court Martinez. At some point due to the “Budget” the Court stopped preparing those reports for me. At that point I was left with no viable means of getting case information other than to plead, cajole, whine, snivel and cry. Or, go to trial myself and report on my own case. I have been singularly unsuccessful in my quest to get attorneys to report verdicts to me on a regular basis. As you know we have expanded the column to include out-of-county cases, and interesting settlements and arbitrations. I must say I was a bit distressed to read in this very magazine a while back about a verdict in which a local firm obtained a defense verdict in a case in which the plaintiff requested an award of $8 million. There was no mention of the venue or the pre-trial offer, but it was not reported to me.
Getting back to the issue of the decline in actual verdicts, the reasons are many and have been debated for years. In my view the advent of serious ADR, not the non-binding arbitrations of old is a big reason. The tremendous cost of going to trial now is another big reason for the decline. The cost of experts is a huge reason as well. And the liberal use of “Settlement mentors” on the day of trial certainly contributes in a very good way to resolving cases.
Recently I was set for trial in Judge Craddick’s department. The matter was contentious and I certainly had no confidence the case would settle. However an excellent settlement mentor spent the entire day working with us, and around 5 pm that first day of trial we settled the matter. Keep in mind the first few hours are free and then the parties must pay for the services of the settlement mentor. Absolutely well worth the cost if a case can be resolved.
I would like to mention that attorneys now regularly take the depositions of medical providers (Doctors) and with proper notice use the deposition transcript or videotape in lieu of live testimony. We have found it to be very effective, a huge cost savings and jurors don’t mind a bit. In a recent trial before Judge Craddick, we presented two doctors by videotaped testimony and it was a huge benefit. Recall those cases in which you schedule your doctor, you get charged a huge sum for the day and you are unable to present the doctor as scheduled. So another big sum charged, to say nothing of the stress. As we all know one of the most stressful parts of a trial is the work trying to arrange the schedule of witnesses.
I will report on my recent jury verdict but please excuse me for not reporting the case name and the name of opposing counsel. Although nothing about the matter is confidential I will not gloat about the verdict. At any rate, I can say it was a jury trial before Judge Craddick. Factually the case involved a vehicle which accidently drove over the curb and into a store, striking and seriously injuring the store owner. The spouse of the injured party witnessed the whole incident and injured herself attempting to pull her husband from beneath the vehicle with the engine still running. By CCP 998 we demand the policy limit of the defendant’s insurance. No response to the demand was made. The case did not resolve at mediation, nor on the first day of trial with the settlement mentor. The jury returned a verdict in excess of the policy limits. A successful costs bill was filed. After a failed motion for new trial and the start of the appeal process, the case resolved with payment of the full verdict and the full costs.
Finally, let’s think about finding a new columnist for the Civil Jury Verdicts column. I say that, not because I have any plans to retire soon, but rather because we just might need to find someone who has new ideas on how to obtain information about our civil jury verdicts. In fact I will continue to write the column if that new someone works with me to get the case information. Folks, let me know your thoughts.