Trials and Litigation in the Era of COVID-19 (III) – Verdict via Zoom: A Look at the First Hybrid Civil Jury Trial in New Jersey

This series explores various issues relating to the reopening of Courts in New Jersey in the shadow of COVID-19, including the intersection of safety measures and the rights of litigants.

New Jersey’s first hybrid virtual jury trial was conducted in Monmouth County on February 9, 2021. De Lva-Dantel v. Henderson was tried before a seven person, virtual jury which decided the case via zoom.[1] The case involved a car accident where the defendant ran a stop sign and ultimately liability was stipulated. In fact, this was not a complicated case. One witness testified, no expert testimony was provided, there were no contentious cross examinations, documentary evidence was agreed upon, etc.  While many of the aforementioned issues are a-typical, the case will no doubt provide useful blueprint for future virtual proceedings.

The impact of COVID-19 was felt from the opening moments of the proceeding. Plexiglas barriers were prominent, encasing the judge and the witness stand. Judge Owen McCarthy also spoke to the safety measures in the courtroom including social distancing. Everyone was required to wear masks in the courtroom except Judge McCarthy (who was surrounded by Plexiglas on the bench). The lawyers were permitted to take off their masks while giving their opening and closing arguments and while questioning the witness. Additionally, the witness, once safely behind the witness stand, was not required to wear a mask. The jury was also given a long list of additional instructions since they were hearing the case from their homes. This included instructions about being alone in the room, not looking information up, and what to do if there were technical issues.

The most striking aspect of the trial was its condensed nature. Every measure was taken to make this first hybrid jury trial as simple and streamlined as possible. As noted above, many issues which would normally dominate a jury trial were absent. It was stipulated that the defendant caused the accident, that the plaintiff had no pain prior to the accident, and that the plaintiff currently had a herniated disc. The main issue was the cause of the herniated disc and the plaintiff’s damages. The plaintiff was the only testifying witness.

Further, it was clear that both sides and the Court had taken efforts behind the scenes to further minimize potential issues. The most obvious evidence of this fact was that there was no testimony from any medical experts. Instead, the parties each provided the jury with a folder of evidence containing medical reports, records, and other “hearsay” evidence. The jury was also provided with a glossary of medical terms to help them understand the records since there were no medical experts testifying. Once provided with those materials, the jurors were given 25 minutes to go over same. This was not deliberation. The jurors were not allowed to communicate with each other while reviewing this evidence and were supervised by the court over zoom. Due to all these stipulations and having just one testifying witness, the presentation of evidence only lasted a few hours.  Again, not at all typical of jury trials.  When the trial concluded, the jurors were placed in a virtual jury room with the verdict sheet sent to the foreperson via email. Deliberations lasted less than an hour. Ultimately the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded money damages. 

In terms of technical issues, the trial showed that there are many kinks to iron out.  Camera angles, locations and amplification certainly added an awkward feel for where to look. Lawyers could not always face the very virtual jury they were speaking to. This made it difficult to gauge jurors’ reactions while they were speaking. Sudden background movements and court operations were in camera view. 

While not fully virtual, this first hybrid trial was a learning experience for all. As the courts and attorneys become more experienced with this format, constituents may see an increased use of this platform. Clients should be aware of the shortcomings and complexities of presenting and preparing a case in this format. Hoagland Longo has prepared and conducted virtual trials, hybrid trials, and fully remote court proceedings. Should you need assistance or guidance please feel free to contact our office. 

[1] The trial was recorded and is available to be seen on YouTube at the following link: Judge Owen McCarthy: DE LVA-DANTEL v. HENDERSON MON-L-3667-18 - YouTube