Florida Man completes personal injury jury trial in five days | Brenda Hollingsworth
Tuesday, August 24, 2021 @ 11:07 AM | By Brenda Hollingsworth
What?! Each of those trials would be four weeks in Ontario. Why can’t we run our trials like that in Ontario?
The state of Ontario’s backlog for motions, pretrials and trials is appalling. It was appalling before the pandemic and it’s worse now. We are scheduling jury trials in late 2023. Imagine the impact on the wait list if the default for personal injury trials were five sitting days instead of 20.
We are smart, well-trained lawyers in a developed country with (somewhat) modern facilities and a sophisticated judiciary. What is holding us back from running speedy trials like those in Florida?
The answer seems to come down to our litigation culture where we simply accept that lawsuits, including trials, just take a long time. No one is going to tell me that the state that gives us the “Florida Man” headlines has a higher inherent competence than we have. What they do have is a highly practical and proportionate approach to trying these cases that Ontario should embrace.
I was fortunate to speak to David Neiser, a board-certified litigation attorney in Clearwater, Fla., with more than 30 years’ experience. In Neiser’s jurisdiction, garden variety personal injury jury trials are set for one week unless the parties convince the court that they have a complex case requiring a special sitting. This is rare.
Most of Neiser’s trials are three or four days. He is working on tightening them up to two to three days. The first day is jury voir dire and possibly opening statements, which are typically 15 to 20 minutes each. The plaintiff will spend an hour to 90 minutes on the stand, including cross-examination. Expert witnesses are about the same, with only about five minutes dedicated to qualifications.
Neiser and defence counsel might examine the family physician for 30 to 40 minutes. Before and after witnesses are about 15 minutes each, including cross-examination. Closing arguments are typically 45 minutes, with a 15-minute rebuttal. Neiser explains that with only a week permitted to present a case, he is focused on presenting only the essentials of his case.
Neiser also emphasizes that the judges are adamant about the efficiency of their trials. They will pressure the parties to “move things along” throughout the trial. If a case does not complete in the five days allotted there is a strong chance it will be a mistrial.
Objections are discouraged. Mid-trial motions are frowned upon. The parties are expected to address all potential motions before the trial date. The judges typically limit their jury charges to 30 minutes. The trial days run from 9 to 5 with a 90-minute lunch. It all gets done.
Ontario’s civil justice infrastructure has made some revolutionary steps forward in the past 20 months thanks to the COVID nudge. Can we use this momentum to make other significant changes to increase our efficiency?
Over the past decade, the idea of proportionality has been celebrated with the addition of R. 1.04(1.1) and the increased monetary limits of the simplified procedure in the Rules of Civil Procedure. Likewise, the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Hryniak v. Mauldin 2014 SCC 7 underlines proportionality as a component of access to affordable justice.
But the reality is that little has changed in most Ontario litigation practices. Like many Ontario lawyers, I have been in Trial Management Court when we suggest a trial length, usually three or four weeks. The presiding judge, looking to be helpful, will suggest that a fifth week be added to be on the “safe side.” We are all part of the problem.
The truth is, if run-of-the-mill civil jury trials were only allowed five days, they would be done in five days.
Would this cultural change toward tighter trial times result in a less just civil justice system? The simple answer is no. No one is more surprised than my own clients when I tell them that a trial of their slip and fall broken leg case would occupy four weeks of court time and all the resultant public resources.
The Ontario public does not have an expectation that their injury cases will be determined with the full regalia of a first-degree murder trial; only the lawyers and judges do.
Brenda Hollingsworth is an owner and founder of Auger Hollingsworth P.C., a personal injury firm representing injured people across Ontario. Hollingsworth is a frequent author and speaker on issues relating to civil litigation and practice.
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