2020 Year in Review and 2021 Judiciary Outlook

2020 has been one of the most unprecedented years in the court system nationwide due to the coronavirus pandemic. Unsurprisingly, case and motion filing were down in 2020. As previously reported by the Asbestos Case Tracker, the number of motion filings were significantly down in the second and third quarters of 2020.

In addition, consulting firm KCIC reported that asbestos filings fell by 20 percent during the time period of January through April 2020, as compared to January through April 2019. They similarly reported that asbestos filings fell by 12 percent during the time period of January through October 2020 as compared to January through October 2019.

Jury Trials in State Courts with Significant Asbestos Litigation

Uncertainty surrounding the status of jury trials and full re-opening of courts nationwide continues into 2021. As noted in a memorandum extending Georgia’s suspension of in-person jury trials, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia set forth that “most in-court proceedings compel the attendance of various individuals rather than allowing them to decide how best to protect their own health.” In addition, as previously reported by the Asbestos Case Tracker, two Zoom trials suffered from serious procedural and technological hiccups. As such, the bench and bar have not been keen on moving forward with additional Zoom trials during the pendency of COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution. In November, a New Orleans parish rendered a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded $10.3 million following an in-person, socially distanced trial.

Generally, while courts in many jurisdictions across the country opened their doors to resume civil jury trials in the fall of 2020, asbestos matters were not contemplated to be included in the first batches of cases called in many states due to the complexities of asbestos trials. However, before court operations could be expanded to accommodate the judicial resources needed in the COVID-19 landscape, many courts discontinued scheduling new jury trials in November and December 2020 due to rising coronavirus cases in their respective counties and states. Notably, court procedures differ from state to state, with some states issuing statewide suspensions, while others leave suspension determinations to the respective counties.

While civil jury trials began in October 2020 in several counties in New York under the jury pilot program, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks issued a memorandum entitled “Revised Pandemic Procedures in the Trial Courts.” The memorandum, dated November 13, 2020, revised some statewide trial court operational practices, including the termination of scheduling any new jury trials until further notice. Judge Marks’ memorandum also noted that “[a]ll future bench trials and hearings will be conducted virtually unless the respective Deputy Chief Administrative Judge permits otherwise.”

Similarly, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas issued a notice to the bar entitled “Commerce and Civil Trials During the Covid-19 Emergency,” which postposed all civil jury trials scheduled through January 4, 2021. A subsequent notice entitled “Resumption of In-Person Jury Trials During the COVID-19 Judicial Emergency” set forth that in-person jury trials in the Mass Tort program, which includes the asbestos docket, were planned to resume as of January 21, 2021. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Chief Judge Ellen Shirer Kovach issued an order dated December 29, which suspended jury trials until January 13, 2021. In a memorandum dated December 23, Chief Justice Harold D. Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia extended the suspension of in-person jury trial proceedings until “at least” February 2021.

While the New Jersey Judiciary intended to resume jury trials incrementally beginning in September, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner suspended new in-person jury trials pending further order. Further, the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois suspended in-person jury trials, but noted that circuits may utilize remote jury selection, subject to the remote jury selection being “conducted consistent with the constitutional rights of the parties and preserv[ing] constitutional public access.”

In South Carolina, Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty suspended jury trials in the state circuit courts by way of memorandum dated December 3, 2020. Chief Justice Beatty did not provide a date by which jury trials are to resume, but noted that “[a]ny order allowing the resumption of jury trials will be issued at least three weeks prior to the affected date to allow for the proper summoning of jurors.” In California, several counties closed their respective clerk’s offices in an attempt to limit in-person contact due to the rising coronavirus cases, including in San Francisco County. In Los Angeles County, Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile noted that “the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County compels the court to take decisive action to limit the number of persons in its courthouses.”

Since August 1, 2020, Missouri courts have moved forward with a phased re-opening, where every county may move to a higher phase with at least 14 days of improving local conditions. While jury and grand jury trials may resume when a county reaches Phase Three, St. Louis City Circuit Court’s Civil Courts building is in Phase Two, while St. Louis County Circuit Court is in Phase Zero.

On November 20, 2020, Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea issued an order setting forth that no new trials would begin before February 1, 2021. Delaware has similarly enacted a phased re-opening plan, but moved back to Phase Two in November and suspended in-person jury trials due to the increasing COVID-19 cases.

While courts are expected to begin in-person jury trials in 2021, such decisions and timeframes will vary from state to state. Continue to follow the Asbestos Case Tracker for analysis of case filings, motion decisions, significant verdicts, and court developments nationwide as we head into 2021.