In-Person Civil Jury Trials Resume in Philadelphia: What to Know Moving Forward
After suspending civil and criminal jury trials on March 17, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas resumed in-person civil jury trials on March 4, 2021. This decision was based on public health guidance and the recommendations of the CDC, as well as state and local public health officials. As of April 7, 2021, nearly 400 civil cases have been scheduled for in-person jury trials in 2021. One hundred-sixty are major jury trials with dates certain (mostly on the complex litigation track), seventy are major jury pool cases (on the expedited and standard tracks), one hundred-fifty are arbitration appeals, and two are mass tort cases.
Of the nearly 400 civil cases scheduled for in-person jury trials, forty jury trials were scheduled for March 2021, eleven of which were major jury cases. Of the forty trials scheduled, twelve juries were selected. Three of these cases settled before a verdict was reached, five resulted in defense verdicts, and four resulted in plaintiff’s verdicts.
Forty-two jury trials are scheduled April 2021, fourteen of which are major jury trials. As April 7, 2021, sixteen of these cases settled. As of April 13, 2021, eighteen juries have been selected. Three of these cases resulted in a defense verdict, two in a plaintiff’s verdict, and one is ongoing. Fifty-four jury trials are scheduled for May 2021, eighteen of which are major jury, and seven of which are medical malpractice trials. If the parties request a continuance, the case is placed in pre-trial status.
With respect to priority for scheduling, past dates for pre-trial conferences are being used to determine priority. The first priority of cases being scheduled for trial are the 363 cases that had actual trial dates in 2020 as either a trial pool month or trial date certain, and all of these cases have been scheduled for trial in 2021. 149 of these cases are complex track cases, including 72 medical malpractice cases, and one five-week products liability trial scheduled for July 2021. 64 of these cases are standard and expedited track cases that were listed as pool cases in 2020, and 150 are arbitration appeals.
The next priority of cases are the 782 cases that had pre-trial conferences scheduled or were projected to be scheduled in 2020. 122 out of these 782 cases have been scheduled for trial in 2021. Of the 782 cases, 153 are complex track cases that were original scheduled for trial from April to December 2020. These cases are on hold to see whether other complex cases settle before their trial dates. Mandatory half-day settlement conferences with the trial judge are being held in all of these cases. 241 out of the 782 cases are standard track cases originally scheduled for trial from April to December 2020. 122 of these cases were scheduled for trial in 2021 during pre-trial conferences held in March 2021. The Court expects to schedule an additional 60 of these cases for trial in 2021. Finally, 388 out of the 782 cases are expedited track cases originally scheduled for trial from April to December 2020. The Court expects to schedule 50% of these cases for trial in 2021.
To ensure the safety of attorneys, parties, witnesses, judges, court staff, and jurors, several safety protocols have been put into place. First, face masks are mandatory inside City Hall. This includes when a witness is testifying and when attorneys are questioning the witness. This also applies to all trial participants, including the trial judge, and this applies even to those who are vaccinated. Non-essential persons involved in a case should watch the case via a YouTube livestream, which members of the public may also use to watch trials.
In addition to wearing face masks, social distancing is required when in City Hall. The jury box is now located where the gallery once was, and witnesses are seated at the end of the jury box, closest to the jury. Counsel table refers to two chairs, with one at each end of the table, spaced six feet apart. Most courtrooms have four counsel tables and two have eight counsel tables. Further, courtroom capacity is agreed upon at pre-trial conferences and is strictly enforced during trial. The Court has also implemented enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols and has added hand sanitizer stations. Additionally, all trial participants are asked COVID-19 screening questions every day.
As cases continue to be tried in 2021, cases also continue to settle, and the number of cases being settled has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Comparing settlements of major jury cases from 4/1/2019 to 3/1/2020 to settlements of major jury cases from 4/1/2020 to 3/1/2021, prior to the pandemic, major jury cases settled at an average of 397 per month. During the pandemic, major jury cases settled at an average of 237 per month. This number increased in January and February 2021, with an average of 327 major jury cases settling. In March 2021, 375 major jury cases settled, which is nearly on par with pre-pandemic averages.
Moving forward, the Court’s number one priority is to tighten up case management protocols, with the goal of preventing further backlog. Specifically, virtual discovery court results in discovery motions being decided within three weeks of the filing date instead of months after the filing date, which was the result of the motions being decided solely on the papers during the pandemic. In addition, case management orders are being timely issued for all cases filed as of January 1, 2021. Notably, motions for extraordinary relief will be denied unless there extraordinary reasons to grant them. Further, while observers, including insurance industry personnel, are not currently allowed in the courtroom, they can watch the proceedings live via the Court’s YouTube livestream. The Court continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure it can safely conduct jury trials and is hopeful that it will continue to be able to do so as the year goes on.