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July selection underway in Fourth Circuit’s first fully Zoom trial

Senior Editor Top Stories

Judge AndersonAn attorney’s briefly sputtering audio and a fierce summer thunderstorm forced brief delays. Two no-show jurors failed to log in.

Despite minor glitches, the first day of Zoom jury selection went smoothly August 6 in what Fourth Judicial Circuit officials and Duval Court Clerk Ronnie Fussell say is the first binding, fully remote civil jury trial in Florida, possibly the nation.

Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson, appearing via Zoom on the bench from the Duval County Courthouse, warned prospective jurors to turn off TVs, or other potential distractions at their homes and offices.

“Each one of you is making history by participating in this remote civil jury trial,” Judge Anderson said. “You are restoring the sound of freedom to the Duval County Courthouse.”

The case is part of a five-circuit, voluntary, remote civil jury trial pilot program authorized earlier this year by Chief Justice Charles Canady in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 11th Circuit conducted the first pilot trial in July, using a hybrid model that combined remote jury selection with an in-person trial using social distancing and extensive protective gear — but the verdict was non-binding.

The National Center for State Courts credits a Texas proceeding in June as the first remote jury trial in the nation, but that verdict was non-binding, too.

The Fourth Circuit case, Cayla Griffin v. Albanese Enterprise, Inc., D/B/A Paradise, is being convened to determine damages related to a 2018 incident in which the plaintiff, a former dancer at a Jacksonville nightclub, was struck and injured by two bouncers. The defense is unrepresented in the case after an attorney withdrew, according to a court spokesman.

“Paradise has exercised its right not to participate in this trial,” Judge Anderson told the jurors.

In keeping with Justice Canady’s order, parties in the pilot program volunteered to participate. Access to the live proceedings are tightly controlled by court officials, but a video recording will be made available for public viewing by Court View Network.

Griffin is represented by veteran Jacksonville attorney Matthew Kachergus.

Wearing a dark suit, striped tie and sporting a neatly trimmed beard, Kachergus appeared before a virtual background depicting an empty courtroom.

“This is a brave new world for all of us, none of us has been in this situation before,” Kachergus said after introducing himself to the panel. “This is strange — I’m a hugger, I’m a hand-shaker, and COVID has blown all of that up.”

Kachergus spent most of the day questioning jurors individually from a morning pool of 12 prospective jurors that dwindled to 10, and an afternoon pool of five that shrank to three.

A second day of jury selection is scheduled for August 7.

On the first day, prospective jurors appeared via iPhones and laptops, and represented a healthy cross section of Northwest Florida, including a grocery store clerk, a fire fighter paramedic, a high school algebra teacher, two nurses, a small business owner, and a civil engineer.

One prospective juror, a laboratory manager, wore a mask despite appearing remotely.

“I’m currently at my place of employment in a conference room, and it’s a requirement,” she explained to Kachergus.

Polite and professional, joking occasionally, Kachergus asked jurors to describe their employment histories, as well as where they obtain their news.

He also asked prospective jurors about their attitudes concerning alcohol consumption, and “gentlemen’s clubs.”

At least three male jurors acknowledged patronizing them.

“I try to keep my money in my pocket and let others spend theirs,” one man said.

A second day of jury selection will be conducted August 7. Eight jurors will eventually be selected to hear the trial, which will also be conducted via Zoom on August 10.

Before dismissing each panel, Judge Anderson issued a standard warning not to “send or accept messages from anyone about your service,” until the trial is completed.

He reminded them to watch for a court email on August 7 that will notify them whether they have been chosen for the panel. The email will also contain a survey, Judge Anderson said.

“It is very, very important that you fill out that survey,” he said.

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