In an effort to tackle its asbestos caseload, San Francisco County Superior Court is proposing the creation of a single asbestos department where all discovery, law and motion and case management matters will be heard. Judge Harold Kahn has been tapped to oversee the department.
"The goal is to make sure that we don't have cases endlessly trailing for trial and that we attempt to have cases settle before they use up a jury panel," said Presiding Judge James McBride.
Wasting jury panels is a concern for San Francisco -- in 2008, asbestos cases consumed 45 percent of jurors summoned for civil trials, according to the court's latest biennial report.
The asbestos department would also be staffed by Commissioner Arlene Borick.
Having a judge and commissioner managing all the cases, McBride added, will mean the court will be more involved in bringing cases to trial readiness.
"Generally there's a consensus among the defense that there's a real need for a new approach," said Lisa Oberg, a San Francisco partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge. "An investment in one judge to handle things is going to result in more consistency, and ultimately we think that will result in savings for the court and for both parties."
Other defense attorneys are also optimistic.
"I think it's probably a good thing for the court to have more involvement in these cases at an earlier stage," said Evanthia Spanos of Oakland, Calif.'s Berry & Berry, which coordinates medical issues for all asbestos defendants. "I don't think there's going to be a lot of opposition from the defense standpoint to this proposed general order."
The court e-served 1,187 asbestos attorneys with the draft order last week, notifying them of a Nov. 17 hearing about it.
Plaintiffs lawyers are mixed in their early reaction to the change.
Having one judge handling cases will streamline litigation, said plaintiff lawyers Stephen Tigerman and Steven Harowitz of San Francisco's Harowitz & Tigerman. As it is now, Harowitz said, "you can get inconsistent results on the same case because you're dealing with several different judges."
The new system would add accountability, Tigerman added: "If you have a judge like Judge Kahn who is supervising a case from beginning to end, that judge is going to be able to see who is taking the low road, and who is taking the high road," he said. "Some firms use hardball tactics, which go against the idea of getting cases resolved easily and quickly."
Other plaintiffs lawyers didn't sound as positive.
"Access to trials is everything," said Gilbert Purcell of Brayton Purcell. "We are not convinced yet that this method, with all the efficiencies that it laudably seeks to obtain, is actually going to increase trial dates."
Some lawyers said it would be nice if the new system worked as well as Alameda's, but that that court doesn't carry as heavy an asbestos caseload as San Francisco's does.
One defense lawyer said both sides of the asbestos bar recognize there's a problem with the asbestos docket, but it's hard to say yet whether this proposed change will fix the problem.
"Different presiding judges before Judge McBride have tried different things, and generally they have not worked in terms of solving the whole problem," said Jeremy Huie of San Francisco's Bassi Edlin Huie & Blum. "Whether this will be the solution that we're looking for, I'm not sure."