In November 2020, I had the honor of participating in a virtual jury trial for a car crash lawsuit as plaintiff’s co-counsel with my good friend Jeff Tuttle.
His client, Keith, had been riding his bike to work. He hit by a car turning in front of him. Keith suffered various injuries—including a head injury. While the courts have continued to postpone many civil cases during COVID-19, Keith had already waited a long time for justice.
It was four years after the collision when his car crash lawsuit finally went to trial last month.
One of the first virtual trials in the country
A normal trial in a case like this would start with motions, and then jury selection.
And originally, we were set to go to trial in person. The county leased the local convention center for civil trials. (For security reason, criminal trials remain in the courthouse.)
After a day of motions, we did jury selection—virtually. The new process of picking our jury required some adjustment, but we found that video conferencing with potential jurors did allow us to view them effectively. More surprisingly, none of the potential jurors seemed to hampered by the process. They were quickly and fully engaged.
When we picked the jury, we all thought they would hear the trial at the convention center. But then, after jury selection, positive COVID tests spiked in the county. The judge asked us to consider an all-virtual trial.
The defendant’s lawyers objected.
They tried to claim that the case couldn’t be properly presented to the jury in a virtual trial. Over the objection, the judge ordered that the trial proceed virtually.This would be a completely new and different experience for the attorneys, and quite frankly, for everyone involved.
Presenting a car crash lawsuit to a remote jury
While we had planned to have the jury in-person at the convention center, there was one big advantage for us, and our virtual jurors: we didn’t have to wear masks.
Because we were all separated, everyone was able to proceed without the masks we would have worn at an in-person trial. The judge and court staff were the exception. They wore masks in order to safely hear the case from the judge’s courtroom.
All of the witnesses were able testify from their homes or offices, including several doctors. And it was clear that the jury was fully engaged. In civil trials, jurors are permitted to ask questions; the jurors asked intelligent questions of the trial witnesses.
The jury issued a verdict in favor of Keith. It was five and a half times larger than asked by defendant’s lawyers.
Following the verdict, all 12 of the jurors talked with the lawyers about the process. They praised the presentations, and shared insight into their view of witnesses. They felt that hearing the case virtually did not take away from their duties as jurors. One juror shared that he had been on several juries before, and that the virtual trial did not change his ability to participate.
Lessons from our trial
We did find it difficult to get a sense of the witnesses’ expressions and body language. While we could see them clearly, the remoteness of the virtual presentation took away many elements of non-verbal communication.
As the attorneys, we also found it helpful to keep a consistent pace to questioning. All of the lawyers focused the presentations and evidence on what the jury really needed to hear: there was no wasted time, no unnecessary testimony or evidence.
The judge was also very conscious of the fact that all participants, especially the jurors, had to have 100% of their attention on the trial. To keep everyone engaged, testimony was limited to 60 minute blocks, with short breaks.
Of course, there were a few technological issues, but they were overcome quite easily. The judge and court staff did a great job directing a new and complex trial process. As we all become more experienced and comfortable with virtual presentations, both at trial and otherwise, the use of documents and exhibits will become easier.
Virtual trials are here for the foreseeable future. We will overcome the virus and return to in-person trials, but I simply do not see that happening for another year or more.
The experience of this trial convinced me that an all-remote trial, while not perfect, is preferable to an indefinite delay of a person’s right to a jury trial.
Attorney Kevin Coluccio, Seattle Washington
Thanks to Jeff Tuttle, Tuttle and Associates, for asking me to co-counsel at the trial for this interesting case.