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Resuming Jury Trials in Massachusetts

With the pandemic having shuttered many businesses and people being required to adhere to masking and social distancing rules, jury trials had been put on pause for both criminal and civil matters. Reports are that some 2,925 scheduled jury trials in Massachusetts since March 2020 have been put on hold. As any trial attorney can attest to, a significant delay in a trial can seriously jeopardize the rights of criminal and civil litigants. However, the state is now preparing to resume jury trials but with caution and significant safeguards in place.

Car Accident Trials Restarting

Trial by jury is a fundamental right embodied in the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in Article III, section 2. Although these provisions only apply to criminal trials, the 7th Amendment also requires civil trials but only in federal courts. However, the Massachusetts constitution does provide for civil jury trials, which is also codified in the Rules of Civil Procedure. The right of a speedy trial for criminal defendants is also a basic right, but can be limited in extraordinary circumstances such as the pandemic. Still, a delay for criminal as well as civil litigants can have the effect of fading memories in witnesses and parties, the loss of key evidence, witnesses who either disappear or pass away, and in keeping indigent criminal defendants who are unable to afford bail languishing in jail cells. In personal injury matters, long-suffering plaintiffs tired and frustrated by the delays or who are suffering from terminal conditions, may opt to settle for less than what they could have reasonably expected to obtain. 

Safety is the major concern with the resumption of jury trials, especially with new variants of Covid-19 turning out to be much more infectious. Still, with thousands of people receiving vaccinations daily, the courts here and elsewhere are anxious to address the backlog of cases. 

Jury pools from which available jurors are pulled and taken to courtrooms to be interviewed by attorneys in the voir dire process have been substantially limited in numbers. Garages by courthouses are being utilized so that prospective jurors can socially distance while also wearing masks, but which necessarily cuts down on the number of available jurors. All persons called to jury duty are given temperature checks and screened before entering. Inside courtrooms, masks are required for all in attendance, with plexiglass barriers around the witness stand, the only area where a person may remove their mask when testifying. Proper ventilation is essential in any indoor gathering and are being upgraded or installed. For jury deliberations, unused or old courtrooms are to be used instead of the usual long table in a small conference room so as to minimize close contact. 

Covid Delayed Trial Restarting

For criminal cases, priority is given to the oldest scheduled trials involving single defendants, many of whom have been waiting in jail cells, either unable to meet bail or for whom bail was denied. Phase 1 consists of 6-person juries for less serious criminal trials and for civil trials with limited damages. Because of the backlog, attorneys can expect pressure from judges, even more so than to what they would normally have been subjected, to settle cases before trial. 

There have also been some changes in which cases are to heard in either district or superior court. As of January 1, 2020, jurisdiction in the district courts over personal injury trials and other cases will now include those with damages up to $50,000, and where 6-person juries are empaneled. Higher damage cases or those of at least $50,000 are held in superior court before 12-person juries.

12-person juries are in Phase II. These are scheduled to re-start in February 2021 and include the most serious criminal matters, youthful offender matters, and civil trials of particular significance. The date for implementing Phase III, where all other trials will commence, has yet to be determined but will probably begin in late summer when many more Massachusetts residents will hopefully have been vaccinated, and infections will have decreased substantially.

Issues that will likely be addressed on a case-by-case basis are where jurors become ill due to Covid, which could potentially quarantine the entire jury and delay a trial. Other issues are whether the court can require the jurors to be tested. Also, what happens if one of the attorneys becomes ill or a court officer who has been present in the courtroom, thus potentially causing the judge, attorneys, witnesses, and courtroom staff to quarantine for 10-14 days?  Out-of-state witnesses and attorneys will have to be quarantined upon arrival in the state. If some witnesses are on zoom, must others who are sequestered be monitored to ensure that they are not live-streaming the testimony?

In any case, returning to some semblance of normality is a welcome sign to litigants and to those awaiting justice. 

Damages in Personal Injury Claims 

Damages in a car accident, or any other personal injury claim largely depend on the reasonableness of the medical care and expenses, income loss, and the effect the claimants’ injuries have had on their quality of life. Damages generally include:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Past and future income loss
  • Inability to work or to perform certain activities that you were able to before the accident
  • Diminished quality of life
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Disfigurement and permanent disability
  • Spousal claim for loss of consortium

For any personal injury case, an experienced personal injury lawyer who is trial-tested is invaluable for injured parties seeking the most compensation available for their claims. 

Retain a Personal Injury Lawyer from Burns and Jain 

If you or a family member was injured in a car accident, slip and fall, or by the negligence of another person or entity, you will need the services of a skilled personal lawyer from Burns and Jain. Our attorneys will vigorously prosecute your claim, and hold all responsible parties accountable. Call us at (617) 286-3594 for a free, in-depth discussion of your personal injury case.