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After a two-week trial run in June, a program for trying civil jury cases within a day will get under way this week in Bronx Supreme Court. So far, attorneys handling 47 tort cases have agreed to use the shortened jury-trial format, in which each side may call only two witnesses and must limit their presentations to one hour, said Justice Barry Salman (See Profile), the administrative judge in the Bronx. During the initial rollout in June, nine cases were tried to verdict, all in one day, and two were settled. Four of the verdicts were for plaintiffs and five were for the defense. Justice Salman said that “during the trial run, the program showed great promise as a tool to help the court cut its case backlog.” Allstate Insurance Company defended nine of the 11 cases in the June experiment. Allstate is the first insurance company to embrace the program, Justice Salman said, but several others have expressed interest. During September, Acting Justice Wilma Guzman (See Profile) will preside over summary jury trials. She will be followed by Justice Dianne T. Renwick (See Profile) in October and Justice Mark Friedlander (See Profile) in November. The program is voluntary, but plaintiffs must accept the insurance policy as a cap on any recovery. The parties may also agree to set a ceiling and a floor on any jury verdict. The four awards to plaintiffs ranged from a low of $25,000 to a high of $107,000. Since the two highest awards-$65,000 and $107,000- were in cases where the defendants only carried $25,000 in insurance, both awards were capped at the policy amount. None of the cases involved high-low agreements. Frank Vozza, who led the effort by the Bronx Bar Association to get the program off the ground, said that the lawyers he has spoken to have been pleased with their experience. “They are only too happy to have their cases tried in a day rather than two weeks or more, and save the cost of bringing doctors in to testify which can cost as much as $10,000,” he said. Lawrence Piergrossi, whose firm Corpina, Piergrossi, Overzat & Klar represented plaintiffs in two cases, said a cost-benefit analysis is the primary motivation. In a case with a limited policy and limited injury, the savings on the cost of bringing in a doctor is significant, he said. He added that a smaller case “can take a lot of time to try and doesn’t deserve that much attention.” While the smaller cases are prime candidates for the program, Mr. Piergrossi said, bigger cases may also be appropriate. Even where there are serious injuries, Mr. Piergrossi said, liability may turn on a simple factual dispute between two drivers that is susceptible to resolution in the shortened format. “As long as my client gets a fair hearing on the facts, I feel summary jury trials provide an important cost savings and should be used,” he said. Defendants engage in a similar calculus, said Robert Shaw, a former Bronx Bar Association president and defense lawyer. “Who wants to spend $10,000 on a doctor for a nominal policy?” he said. “To spend a week trying such a case is a waste of time, money and resources.” The program is “a great benefit, not only to the attorneys participating in it, but to the entire system, because it means that the regular jury trial calendar will be that much less crowded,” said Mr. Shaw, a partner at Ahmuty, Demers & McManus. “As long as the results continue to come in right down the middle,” he added, “the program will remain popular with both sides.” Statewide effort The Bronx program is part of an Office of Court Administration plan to expand the use of summary jury trials statewide, said Justice Lucindo Suarez (See Profile), who was appointed in March by Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) to head the effort. Initially, the Bronx plaintiff’s bar was skeptical, said Mr. Vozza, because the judges who have used summary jury trials in the Eighth Judicial District, which includes Buffalo, had been empowered to order parties to participate in non-binding, day-long trials. “Plaintiffs’ lawyers did not want to be forced to try their cases twice, especially after they had disclosed their trial strategy in the initial summary round,” said Mr. Vozza, who headed the bar association committee that drafted the rules, which were adopted without change by Justice Salman. Mr. Vozza said the lawyers’ concerns were eased when Justice Salman agreed that the Bronx program would be voluntary and the results binding. Former Justice Joseph Gerace, who started the first experiment with summary jury trials in Chautauqua County in 1998 and presided over the 11 Bronx trials in June, said the ability to require non-binding trials was an important ingredient to enable the program to eliminate court congestion. The overwhelming number of cases that he ordered to non-binding trial either settled before the summary trial or shortly after, he said. Hardly any were retried as full-blown jury trials, he added. Over the past year, a program in the Seventh Judicial District, which includes Rochester, has been expanded to all eight counties in the district. During the summer, a program started in Ulster County, which is in the third district. Ultimately, the aim is to have programs operating in all of the state’s 12 judicial districts, Justice Suarez said. Summary jury trials have been used in at least 17 states and several federal district courts, according to the OCA. Streamlined rules In addition to limiting each side’s fact presentation to one hour, the Bronx program limits each party to a 10-minute opening and a 10-minute closing. Time spent cross-examining an opponent’s witness is chargeable to the hour that the cross-examiner has for presentation. Jury selection is closely supervised, but the rules provide that each side’s lawyer will have 10 minutes to question jurors when voir dire is conducted by the judge. Justice Salman said he has made arrangements to insure that a panel of 20 jurors is available to the judge presiding over summary jury trials at 9:30 a.m. Jury panels are usually not forwarded to courtrooms until late morning or early afternoon. Also Justice Salman said OCA has made arrangements to bring lunch into the courthouse for summary trial jurors, at its expense, to cut down on time that would be lost during the lunch hour. Jury selection is presided over by a judge, which is not the case in regular jury trials. Bronx practitioners say that voir dire in regular jury trials can often take a day and a half. According to data collected during June, voir dire typically took a little more than an hour, though it could be as short as 45 minutes. The rules also provide for relaxed rules of evidence, akin to those used in arbitrations, and establish a protocol so that all documentary evidence is exchanged in advance and objections are ironed out. During the hour they have to present their cases, lawyers can go over their documents with the jury rather than presenting them through witnesses. The rules encourage lawyers to use innovative methods in presenting their evidence such the preparation of trial notebooks which contain doctors reports, exhibits, deposition testimony and other documents the lawyers want the jury to have for deliberations. The rules also recommend the use of power-point presentations and overhead projectors. The rules, however, are not ironclad, and may be varied at the discretion of the judge. Daniel Wise can be reached at [email protected]

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