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The key to pulling off the Fourth Circuit’s virtual jury trial was the court tech officers who served as ‘remote bailiffs’

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The trial was part of a five-circuit remote civil jury pilot program authorized by the chief justice in June

Fourth Circuit Trial

Fourth Judicial Circuit officials say Florida’s first fully remote, binding civil jury trial was a milestone in moving the courts forward in the age of COVID-19.

A day after the August 10 verdict in Griffin v. Albanese Enterprise, Inc. D/B/A Paradise, Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson said the trial achieved what he had hoped — a remote trial that, as much as possible, resembled the “real thing.”

Judge Anderson“To me, it felt like a real trial and it looked like a real trial,” he said. “I felt that adrenaline rush that I normally feel before a trial.”

The trial was part of a five-circuit remote civil jury pilot program that Chief Justice Charles Canady authorized in June.

The relatively uncomplicated case required two days of remote jury selection and a one-day trial that featured two witnesses and limited evidence — some medical bills and a few photographs. Jurors took less than 30 minutes to reach a verdict.

Their only task was to determine the amount of damages the plaintiff should receive for serious injuries she suffered at the hands of two bouncers at a Jacksonville nightclub in 2018. With the defendant not participating, the trial featured only a single attorney.

But planning, which involved mock sessions, began in early June, and required a small army of court personnel and ABOTA volunteers.

ABOTA Jacksonville Chapter President Corinne Hodak, who served as a special master for the trial, said the secret weapon was a team of experienced court IT officers who served as “remote bailiffs.”

“It’s all about the technology,” Hodak said. “What you couldn’t see was all the work that was being done in the background, it was sort of like a tour of underground Disney.”

The team, led by Court Technology Officer Mike Smith, consisted of remote bailiffs James Muse, Patrick Estalilla, Lawrence Ashley, and Vince Parulolo. The bailiffs were in constant touch with jurors and the court, available at all times to troubleshoot.

To make the trial work, organizers developed a series of “form emails,” and Zoom tutorials for jurors. State software developed for pro-se litigants was repurposed so that jurors would have digital forms for posing written questions to the court.

“It’s basically an online, ‘answer this question,’ and it builds that document,” Smith said.

The IT team also developed a screensaver with a countdown clock to help jurors remain engaged during recesses, Judge Anderson said.

“So that they would have a visual cue,” he said. “It created that air of, ‘you’re still in the game,’ so to speak.”

One prospective juror tested the bounds of court decorum, Judge Anderson said, when he reclined on a bed and, possibly because of the angle of his iPhone camera, appeared to be closing his eyes.

To handle prospective jurors who lacked technology, court officials set up remote computer terminals at local libraries.

Juror summonses required extra work for Duval Clerk of Court Ronnie Fussell’s staff, said spokesman Brian Corrigan.

“Ordinarily our jurors get picked automatically and our vendor would send out the summonses,” he said. “Our jury services team had to do things much more manually.”

But the work paid off, Corrigan said, with the return rate outpacing traditional jury summonses. Of the 150 summonses that went out, 87 were returned, for a 58% response rate compared with the usual 50%, Corrigan said.

The extra work required would make frequent remote jury trials prohibitive, Corrigan said.

“Yes, we could replicate it,” he said. “The problem is scalability.”

Jacksonville attorney Matthew Kachergus, of Sheppard White Kachergus DeMaggio Wilkison, P.A., said the trial was a triumph for his client, with the jury awarding her more than he requested in closing arguments.

For Kachergus, the trial was a learning experience.

“I learned more about technology in this trial than I did in the past 10 years,” he said.

Technical glitches forced occasional recesses, including an afternoon thunderstorm that briefly knocked all parties offline. Kachergus struggled briefly when he couldn’t get evidence to display.

But one of the biggest challenges, Kachergus said, was managing the technology while presenting his case. At times, it was impossible to see the entire jury panel.

But with cases backing up and no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, Kachergus said lawyers will have few options.

“At some point the inability to bring cases to conclusion is going to hit critical mass, and people are going to have to find other alternatives,” he said. “And this is one of them.”

The Fourth Circuit is planning another fully remote civil jury trial in September, to hear a more complicated business dispute, Judge Anderson said.

He said that while the trial was a success, it required so many IT personnel at a time when they are already stretched thin, that he shares Corrigan’s concerns about scalability.

“Yes, we could replicate it, but I’m not sure we have the budget or the resources,” Anderson said. “Those are issues we will have to address in our final report.”

The trial is available for public viewing on the  Court View Network  website.

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