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Fourth Circuit wraps up its first virtual trial

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Duval County CourthouseThe evidence — hospital records, photos of the battered plaintiff, and two tattooed bouncers — was delivered via Dropbox.

Jurors participated via laptops, an iPad, and an iPhone 10.

Calling a morning recess to fix a balky connection, Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson suggested that jurors tend to household chores.

“Please don’t log out or leave the proceeding…you’re free to get up and walk around,” he said. “If you need to put stuff in the washer or dryer… whatever you think you can do in five minutes.”

Fourth Circuit officials and Duval Court Clerk Ronnie Fussell marked another milestone in the court system’s pandemic recovery on August 10, convening Florida’s first fully remote, binding, civil jury trial.

Preceded by two days of Zoom jury selection, Cayla Griffin v. Albanese Enterprise, Inc., D/B/A Paradise, was part of a five-circuit, voluntary remote jury trial pilot program authorized by Chief Justice Charles Canady in response to the pandemic.

In his May 21 order, Justice Canady declared that the pilots were “to establish the framework and identify the logistics of trying cases remotely.” Under the order, all parties must volunteer, the trials are limited to civil matters, and circuits must report their findings by October 2.

In July, the 11th Circuit employed a hybrid model that blended remote jury selection via Zoom with an in-person trial that required the advice of health experts, and extensive use of protective gear.

The case centered on an insurance dispute arising from hurricane damage, but the verdict was non-binding.

The National Center for State Courts labeled a Texas proceeding in June the nation’s first remote jury trial, but that verdict was also non-binding.

Eleventh Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto pronounced her hybrid model a success. But she warned that the experiment consumed so many court resources — IT workers, multiple judges, and a large medical team — that it would be almost impossible to replicate on a large scale.

The Fourth Circuit’s remote jury trial featured three IT employees serving as virtual “bailiffs” — gatekeepers who verified juror identities, routed them in and out of Zoom waiting rooms, and forwarded their written questions to the court.

Also participating was a court-appointed special magistrate, North Florida attorney Corinne Hodak, president of ABOTA Jacksonville Chapter.

Multiple recesses were necessary to iron out technical glitches, but they were brief, and the trial proceeded remarkably smoothly.

With the defendant already determined to be at fault, and declining to participate, Judge Anderson told the jury they had only one job.

“The issue you must decide is the extent of damages,” he said.

The plaintiff, 23-year-old Kayla Griffin, is a college student and works as a customer service representative for a large medical insurance company.

In February of 2018, Griffin was working as a dancer at a Jacksonville nightclub when she was assaulted by two bouncers and suffered a concussion, multiple facial fractures, lacerations, and four broken teeth.

Griffin testified that after being ejected from the club near the end of her shift, she was attempting to reenter the club to retrieve her belongings and street clothes when the bouncers punched her in the face and knocked her unconscious.

Responding to questions by her attorney, Matthew Kachergus, Griffin testified remotely before a virtual background depicting an empty courtroom.

Griffin said the incident scarred her physically and emotionally.

“Are you someone who takes pride in your appearance?” Kachergus asked. “How did it make you feel viewing the damage that was done to your face and your teeth?”

“It was hard looking in the mirror…it’s still hard,” she said.

Griffin said the incident left her unable to work for 18 months and exacerbated her preexisting anxiety and ADHD. She has since sought treatment for depression, but after recently giving birth, she said she no longer takes anti-depressants.

“It hurts more inside than it did outside…when I look at my scar, it’s a constant reminder of what happened to me that night,” she said.

In brief closing arguments, Kachergus thanked jurors for participating in a “brave new world” of remote jury trials, and asked them to award Griffin more than $47,000 for her hospital and dental expenses and $250,000 for pain and suffering.

Jurors were directed to a virtual waiting room to deliberate at 5:19 p.m.

At 5:36 p.m., a bailiff appeared on screen to announce that a verdict had been reached.

Jurors awarded the medical expenses, plus $10,000 for future medical costs, and $300,000 for pain and suffering.

Judge Anderson thanked the jurors for “returning the sound of freedom” to the Duval County Courthouse.

“Each of you have joined me in this great American experiment of self-government,” Judge Anderson said. “I will never forget you.”

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