Florida Jury Delivers $411M Dollar Personal Injury Verdict by Zoom
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost all areas of our lives. For personal injury Attorneys like our team, the biggest affect has been the unavailability of jury trials. Starting as early as March of 2020, Courts throughout the Country began to cancel all in person jury trials. By November of 2020, nearly two dozen Federal Courts had posted orders suspending jury trials indefinitely. These orders affected the following Federal Court Districts:
Alaska; Arizona; Eastern District of Arkansas; Colorado; Northern, Central and Southern Districts of Illinois; Northern and Southern Districts of Indiana; Kansas; Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky; Maine; Maryland; Minnesota; Western District of Missouri; Nebraska; Nevada; Northern District of Oklahoma; Western District of Pennsylvania; Western District of Texas; Utah; Eastern District of Virginia; Eastern District of Washington; and Western District of Wisconsin.
These orders suspending jury trials make it all the more remarkable that a Court in Florida not only managed to conduct a jury trial virtually in an October personal injury case, but that the jury rendered a massive $411 million dollar verdict entirely online.
Washington v. Top Auto Express, Inc.
The case arose when former U.S. Army Sergeant Duane Washington was involved in a 45-car pile up on Florida’s Interstate 10. During the crash, he was partially paralyzed. According to the personal injury complaint, Washington was driving on Interstate 10 in Florida on July 24th, 2018. Due to bad weather, an 18 wheel truck lost control. Washington – who was riding on a motorcycle – tried to evade the truck in the median but ultimately crashed into another truck parked in the median without any emergency lights on. The crash left Washington permanently injured. Washington testified that he is in permanent pain now, has metal rods throughout his body and had spent over 6 months in the hospital with life threatening injuries. Notably, the Plaintiff denied a policy limit settlement offer of $1 million dollars.
This case is unique, in that the zoom presentation was rather abbreviated due to the inaction of the Defendant. According to Court records, the Defendant – Top Auto – repeated failed to cooperate with discovery requests. This refusal ultimately led to the Defendant being summarily found liable – so the Zoom trial centered strictly on damages. The Court sought to have the case abbreviated to deal with the practical limitations of virtual trials. Thus, the lawyers only had about 5 hours in which to present their case to the jury.
The $411m Personal Injury Verdict
On October 2nd, 2020, the virtually seated jury rendered a verdict in favor of the Plaintiff as follows:
Trial by Zoom
This verdict shows that – while hardly a substitute for in-person jury service – virtual teleconferencing can be used to great effect to ensure that justice is served. Many in the legal profession doubted that jury trials could work remotely – but now they have 411 million reasons why they can. The key takeaway from this case seems to be that in order to be successful with virtual trials, Court and Practitioners need to take special care to ensure that only the issues strictly in dispute go to a jury. In this particular case, the jury was only considering the issue of damages, rather than a conventional and drawn out trial about liability. While the nature of this type of proceeding may lead to Court’s needing to be more activist or decisional in pre-trial proceedings, the outcome bodes well for the ability for the public to have continued access to the legal system in these unprecedented times.
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Dennis P. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Georgia
Christopher A. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Michigan