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Aministrative Judge Gerald V. Esposito, who is in charge of civil cases in Bronx Supreme Court, yesterday embarked on a new program to chip away at what he called a serious backlog of city cases. Once cases against New York City are ready for trial in the Bronx, it takes more than four years for the trial to start, Justice Esposito said, more than twice as long as the wait time in any other borough. “Delays of that magnitude are unacceptable and unfair to Bronx litigants and the court system,” he said. In an attempt to remedy the problem, Justice Esposito called a calender of 18 sidewalk cases yesterday in an effort to wrest settlements. By day’s end, four of those cases had settled, and another five were close enough that the judge will sit down with the parties again on Tuesday. Justice Esposito said he reviewed the strengths and weakness of each case with the two sides and made a recommended settlement figure. Both sides, he added, had brought “a good spirit to the discussions.” First Deputy Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, who was involved in setting up the new protocol, said that all sides were cooperative and “everyone is more focused on resolving cases more quickly in the Bronx.” Justice Esposito will continue to call settlement calendars of 15 to 20 cases every Tuesday for the foreseeable future. The cases involve the city’s defense of claims that negligence caused mishaps on sidewalks. By the middle of April, a similar calendar will be established for all other lawsuits against the city, except for medical malpractice cases. Justice Esposito has appointed former Justice Jerry L. Crispino, who retired last year, as a judicial hearing officer (JHO) to preside over those settlement conferences. Justice Esposito held out hope that the new effort to settle cases would yield results, because both the Corporation Counsel’s Office and the Comptroller’s Office have agreed to assign new personnel to staff the two new settlement calendars. Jeffrey Grossman, the deputy borough chief of the Corporation Counsel’s Bronx office, will handle the conferences being conducted by Justice Esposito and Mr. Crispino. Betty Lawrence Lewis, the bureau chief of the Corporation Counsel’s Bronx office , will continue to conferences cases that are ready to go to trial. The comptroller’s office has designated a new team of “sidewalk” specialists to handle Justice Esposito’s settlement calendars. New personnel are also being assigned to Mr. Crispino’s cases. Other settlement conferences will continue to be handled by Bernard Londin, the Comptroller Office’s senior court representative. Both the Corporation Counsel’s and Comptroller’s offices must sign off on settlements for the city. A law that went into effect on Sept. 14, 2003, transferred liability for sidewalk accidents from the city to owners of commercial properties and homes of four or more units. The sidewalk cases being handled by Justice Esposito pre-date the new law. The judge said he has received assurances from both city officials and leaders of plaintiffs’ bar that they will take a more realistic approach to the settlement effort. Faye Leoussis, the chief of the Corporation Counsel’s Office, pledged that the office “will do whatever we have to do to make it work.” The city is “very committed to the early settlement of cases,” she said, and will do “whatever it can to settle cases any time, any where, any how.” Plaintiffs lawyers express cautious optimism about the latest effort because Justice Esposito has brought his personal prestige to the undertaking. “I definitely think it will be helpful,” said Lawrence A. Piergrossi, a former Bronx Bar Association president who has worked to get city and court officials to address the trial delays in the Bronx. “The city knows the administrative judge has taken an interest in setting up this program and expects its lawyers to have their cases prepared and to negotiate in good faith.” Nonetheless, Mr. Piergrossi, of Corpina, Piergrossi, Overzat & Klar, and other bar leaders, including some who represent defendants, expressed concern that city officials will not come forward with settlement offers reflecting the fact that Bronx jurors are more generous than those elsewhere in the city. The value of cases in the Bronx is higher than in Manhattan or Queens, because Bronx juries return more � and higher � verdicts, Mr. Piergrossi said. Juries in the Bronx side with plaintiffs in 65 percent to 75 percent of the cases that go to trial. In other boroughs the city wins 60 percent to 70 percent of the time. For the process to work, city lawyers need to take a bargaining position that is reflective of that fact, he said. Robert A. Shaw, a defense lawyer and former Bronx Bar Association president, said he is “hopeful” that the city will change its settlement tactics, but suggested that given past performance it has a long way to go. In the Bronx, “the city has captured and controlled the court system through a conscious policy of delay,” he said. The result has been “a crisis of immense proportions that has developed over a long period of time,” added Mr. Shaw a partner at Ahmuty, Demers & McManus. Ms. Leoussis took issue with the charge that the city had a policy of “conscious” delay. The problem is one of limited resources, she said. “We are targeting our resources to the areas that need help the most, and the Bronx is one of them.” Ms. Leoussis added that the Corporation Counsel’s Office is still recovering from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which forced it out of its headquarters adjacent to the World Trade Center for eight months. Also, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the number of its attorney’s dropped by 40. Ms. Leoussis said the criticisms of her office’s performance are based on outmoded perceptions. The office is settling about 7,700 cases a year, more than double the number it was settling 10 years ago, she said. City Initiative Criticized A program instituted at the city’s suggestion a year ago to reduce the Bronx backlog does not augur well for the current effort, several lawyers said. That plan involved the assignment of all seven of the city’s trial lawyers in the Bronx to the 400 oldest cases. It was “a dismal failure,” Justice Esposito said. City officials failed to evaluate their cases before a final settlement conference so the vast majority were sent out to trial, he said. Case synopses were not prepared and serious offers were not made until the cases were actually sent out for jury selection and trial, the judge said. Only 8 percent of the cases were resolved at what was supposed to be “the last clear chance” conference, Justice Esposito said, adding that only after substantial court resources were consumed were 60 percent to 70 percent of the cases resolved. Both jurors and courtrooms are in short supply in the Bronx, he said. Jeffrey Lichtman, a former president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, a plaintiff’s group, said that Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo had rejected a request from Justice Esposito to assign two additional lawyer to the Bronx to help ease the backlog. Mr. Piergrossi charged that the city had rejected a suggestion from Justice Esposito that a non-jury plan be fashioned for city cases modeled on a program that has been successfully used for private litigants. Under the program used when a private tort defendant has insurance coverage, cases are submitted to judges to be tried without juries under streamlined evidentiary rules if the plaintiff agrees to cap liability at the policy maximum. The city is self-insured so there is no policy to cap liability. Nonetheless, Mr. Piergrossi explained, an agreement could be structured to limit the city’s liability to mimic the limits set by insurance policies in the non-city cases. The city has made a push to win legislation to have all city cases tried in the state Court of Claims, where the trier of fact would be a judge not a jury, Mr. Piergrossi pointed out. In light of that position, he said, “I don’t understand why the city won’t agree to go non-jury on some of these smaller cases. Ms. Leoussis acknowledged that it takes about twice as long to bring a case to trial in the Bronx as it does elsewhere. The Bronx, she suggested, suffers from a shortage of judicial resources. In any event, she said, initiatives undertaken by the city have helped cut trial delays in other boroughs that a few years ago were as long as they are in the Bronx. While lawyers may have criticized the city’s Bronx initiative, she said, “it is very unusual for a defense organization to propose measures to move cases.” The fact that the city did so, she added, demonstrates her office’s “commitment to eliminating every backlog in the city.” Ms. Leoussis said that her office had not rejected proposals for more lawyers for the Bronx or streamlined non-jury trials. Setting up a separate track for non-jury cases requires added personnel the city does not have. The law department, like other agencies, is laboring under “a pretty difficult financial situation,” she said. If non-jury trials could be incorporated in the existing trial calendar, which would not require additional lawyers, she said, the city would be more than willing to participate in such a program.

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