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A national effort to streamline jury trials could help employers by trimming litigation costs and encouraging jurors to focus on case facts rather than on emotional appeals, an advocate said.
The National Jury Trial Innovations Project is sponsored in part by the Chicago-based Institute of the International Assn. of Defense Counsel Foundation. IADC member attorneys represent insurers and Fortune 500 companies.
Nationwide, more than 100 lawyers are involved in the project, whose main goal is to educate judges, plaintiffs' lawyers and defense attorneys about practices that could make trials more efficient, said Gregory Read, a senior partner in the San Francisco-based law firm of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold. Mr. Read is a project board member.
Once attorneys and judges learn about the practices, they can introduce them into individual courtrooms or advocate making them law in the jurisdictions where they practice, Mr. Read said.
Limiting trial time is one change favored by the organization. The idea is to give plaintiffs and defendants a specific time period to present their cases and cross-examine witnesses, Mr. Read explained. One way to do that, for example, would be for the judge and lawyers for both sides to determine before a trial starts how long they will need.
"It requires the attorneys to be much more efficient in the way they present their case because you don't call a bunch of extraneous witnesses," Mr. Read said. "You don't put on evidence you don't need. You figure out from the get-go what is important about your case and what isn't, and you just deal with what is important."
Jurors benefit because they know from the beginning how long they will serve. Employers could benefit because trial time, and therefore litigation expense, stands to be reduced, Mr. Read said.
The current jury system and the number of lawyers involved in some trials can be compared with a college course taught by several professors with different arguments and students who cannot ask questions and who can enroll in the class only if they know nothing about the subject, according to "Order In The Classroom," a video produced by the Institute. Furthermore, students are never told what is important and they cannot take notes to help them remember what they believe is important.
Potential innovations could correct that by permitting jurors to ask questions during trials and to take notes, which many jurisdictions do not allow.
Deliberations also could be shortened by allowing jurors to discuss evidence during the trial phase, but only when all jurors are present and only in the jury room, Mr. Read said.
"This would be a revolutionary thing," Mr. Read noted. "For hundreds of years, juries have been admonished that they only can discuss the case and evidence at the end of the case."
Trials also could be shortened through the pretrial admission of exhibits and deposition testimony. A judge could then rule on any objection before a trial was under way rather than adhering to the cumbersome method of stopping and starting a hearing for objections.
Mr. Read believes the revisions would make the facts of a case clearer to jurors by making it easier for them to process the information presented to them. Additionally, they would become active participants throughout the trial.
Most employers do not fear going to trial as much as they fear an emotion-laden hearing that they might think is unfair to them, Mr. Read said.
But why would plaintiffs' attorneys support the endeavor?
The Project hopes plaintiffs' attorneys eventually will help defense lawyers and judges spread the word nationwide, Mr. Read said. The effort so far has included the "Order in the Classroom" video and presentations at attorneys' conferences. The project also has produced a media kit.
Several of the ideas, such as allowing jurors to take notes and ask questions, could benefit everyone, said a spokesman for the Washington-based Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, which represents plaintiffs' attorneys.
But plaintiffs' attorneys have their own reforms they want, such as the elimination of court decisions that keep secret certain evidence presented in defective product cases. Compromise over such issues is a potential stumbling block, as is the "slow process" of change, the ATLA spokesman said.