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Judges, it’s good to avoid delays. Just don’t go to extremes when trying to speed cases through the courtroom. That’s the message from a divided appeal court panel, which ruled Wednesday that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Josh Fredricks should not have proceeded with a civil trial when the defendant’s attorney was already in trial in another courtroom. There was no defense, and after four days of evidence, the judge directed a verdict and awarded the plaintiffs $12.5 million. The original trial was expected to involve 43 witnesses and three weeks of testimony. “The trial court was well off the mark in announcing that the scheduling conflict before him was �not my problem,’” wrote Second District Court of Appeal Justice Orville Armstrong. “To the contrary, because this scheduling conflict affected the administration of justice, it was indeed the judge’s problem, and one that he was obligated to make every effort to address in a manner which ensured the just resolution of the case before him.” Justice Richard Mosk joined the decision. Presiding Justice Paul Turner wrote a one-page dissent. Oliveros v. County of Los Angeles, 04 C.D.O.S. 6842, is a medical malpractice case stemming from an incident at an L.A. County hospital. A heart surgery patient suffered brain damage while in recovery and sued in September 2000. The county hired George Peterson of Bonne, Bridges, Mueller, O’Keefe & Nichols to defend the suit. Peterson spent more than 250 hours preparing for a trial, which was repeatedly delayed. It was finally scheduled to begin July 9, 2002. But Peterson had another matter scheduled for trial at the same time. It took precedence because it was filed first, according to the opinion. Peterson couldn’t be in two places at once, so he asked the court for a continuance. Judge Fredricks refused and said he thought Peterson “take[s] too many cases,” according to the opinion. Fredricks also said he needed to follow the rules laid out in the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act and told the defense to bring another attorney from Peterson’s firm to do the trial. While it’s proper to follow speedy trial rules, the Second District ruled, doing so should not take precedence over the “guiding principle of deciding cases on their merits rather than on procedural deficiencies,” Armstrong wrote. “We emphasize that, whatever counsel’s shortcomings in managing his schedule, it is the rights of the client, not the lawyer, which are at stake here.”

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