California's Expedited Jury Trials Act: A Silver Bullet For Backlogged Courts and Costly Jury Trials?

California's Expedited Jury Trials Act: A Silver Bullet For Backlogged Courts and Costly Jury Trials?

By Matthew R. Souther

As civil litigants throughout California and the nation know very well, litigation is time consuming and extremely expensive. New York and South Carolina have recently enacted expedited trial systems. These systems streamline the jury trial process and help ease the financial burden associated with civil trials. They also operate as a middle ground between arbitration or mediation and a lengthy jury trial. Both the plaintiff and defense bars agree these programs have enjoyed a good measure of success and have made the Courts more readily accessible. The programs seem to have created a win-win situation for litigants. 

California has decided to follow suit. On September 30, 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law the Expedited Jury Trials Act (“EJTA”). The EJTA provides litigants with a faster and more economical alternative to traditional litigation. 
 
The EJTA provides litigants with the option of conducting expedited one (1) day jury trials in civil cases. A key feature of the expedited trial system is completely optional participation, which is done by stipulation rather than Court Oder. However, should both parties stipulate or the Court determines sua sponte or upon noticed motion by a party that good cause exists, the litigants can withdraw from the expedited jury trial process.    
 
The EJTA has implemented several case handling procedures that will also help expedite trials. The EJTA provides for a jury of 8 or fewer members, with no alternates. In order to secure a verdict, a vote of 6 of the 8 jurors is required. There is a limit of 3 peremptory challenges for each side. The EJTA also imposes a 3 hour limit on each side to present its entire case. There are, however, no time constraints imposed upon jury deliberations. The EJTA will also somewhat relax the rules of evidence to facilitate a swifter trial; however, privilege and confidentiality doctrines will not be affected. Litigants cannot move for a directed verdict, motions to set aside the verdict or any judgment rendered by the jury, or motions for a new trial on the basis of inadequate or excessive damages. The only approved post-trial motions are motions relating to attorney’s fees, motions to correct a judgment for a clerical error, and motions to enforce a judgment. 
 
If the parties agree to an expedited trial, the verdict is binding and all rights to appeal are waived. There are only 3 instances in which a verdict may be disregarded: (1) judicial misconduct, (2) jury misconduct, or (3) “corruption, fraud or other undue means employed in the proceedings of the court, jury, or adverse party that prevented a party from having a fair trial.”
 
In cases involving either minors or in pro per parties, the Court shall approve any high/low agreement; however, neither the existence of the high/low agreement nor its terms may be disclosed to the jury.  
 
The EJTA also requires the Judicial Council to formalize additional rules and procedures on or before January 1, 2011. The EJTA program is scheduled to operate until January 1, 2016 but may be extended, provided such legislation is enacted before the expiration of the program. 
 
Is the EJTA program the long sought magic bullet to ease California’s overburdened civil court system and the relief from the exponentially increasing costs of civil litigation? It seems to be easing some pain in New York and South Carolina. Why not California? Time will tell.

Matthew Souther is an associate at Neil Dymott. His areas of practice include professional liability, personal injury and general civil litigation. For further information, Mr. Souther may be reached at (619) 238-1712 or msouther@neildymott.com 

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