On September 30, 2020 the 10th Judicial District, which encompasses Wake County, North Carolina, released its Jury Trial Resumption Plan (“the Plan”). A fully copy of the plan is available here. The plan is quite comprehensive and deals with matters ranging for jury duty to the mechanics of jury trials during COVID-19 for practitioners. The plan states in its preface, “This plan sets out the baseline for the resumption of jury trials; policies implementing the measures set out herein will continue to be reviewed and adjusted by the Wake County Court Emergency Response Team, in consultation with state and local health officials.”
Of note for litigants with civil matters slated for jury trials in Wake County is the following language: “The Trial Court Administrator shall identify civil matters that are ready for trial and place those matters on a civil trial calendar. No civil matter shall be calendared for a jury trial until the later of January 1, 2021 or until at least 30 days have elapsed since the resumption of criminal jury trials, unless a jury has previously been selected and impaneled in a case.” Based on this language, criminal matters will take priority over civil matters for the foreseeable future. An interesting footnote in the Plan notes that in the fiscal year 2018-2019 Wake County had a total of seven civil jury trials, and in the fiscal year 2019-2020 Wake County had a total of eight civil jury trials. The point of this footnote is to convey that on the civil side, a slow resumption of jury trials stands to impact less than one percent of cases based upon numbers from the previous two fiscal years.
Some cases necessarily require a jury in order to have an effective and fair resolution for all parties. Other cases such as certain business disputes, collections, and construction matters, can be resolved through either summary judgment, or if fact issues remain, bench trials. We do not yet have enough data to know whether the Plan will increase efficiency in the resolution of civil lawsuits in Wake County, or whether it will make dispositions slower.
The Plan could increase efficiency if litigants are either 1) more likely to settle because they do not want to wait for a jury trial, 2) more likely to agree to a bench trial in the appropriate case, or 3) agree to a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) such as arbitration to resolve their disputes. The Plan could decrease efficiency because, in theory, any party can demand a jury trial, and a defendant could hold out for a civil jury trial as a way to delay a Plaintiff’s opportunity for recovery. It is likely that a Court would not look favorably on such a practice in a simple matter that could be easily resolved with a bench trial; however, without question certain litigants will opt for this delay tactic.
COVID-19 has re-shaped the way that civil litigation works. We now do things remotely which just a few months ago would have without question been performed in person, absent extraordinary circumstances. There is now far less certainty as to when a particular matter will be reached by the Court for trial. The good news is that the Plan establishes a path forward. All lawyers and litigants will have to learn to navigate that path; however, it appears things are in the process of returning to normal. Whether that is the “old normal” or “new normal” remains to be seen. If you would like to discuss pursuing a civil matter in light of the Plan and the current state of the Court System, one of our attorneys would be glad to speak with you about how to reach a resolution in the most efficient way possible under your set of circumstances.