Trials in the wake of COVID-19

COVID-19 has affected nearly every facet of our lives, including the ability of our court systems to hear cases. Last march, following the priorities set by the Governor, the Supreme Court of Virginia began limiting activities in courthouses around the state. A few months later, in May, the Supreme Court of Virginia effectively shut down all jury trials across the Commonwealth. With no jury trials, thousands of cases were brought to a standstill.

empty trial courtroom during covid-19

What does this mean for your personal injury case?

Likely, if you had a court date set during this year, it was continued. If you were trying to set an initial court appearance, you may have had to look out as far as 2021. Fortunately, these limitations mainly affected circuit court jury trials.

General District Court (GDC) trials suffered fewer restrictions. Initially, many of these cases were continued. However, since a GDC trial has fewer moving parts, courthouses could adapt easier. In a GDC trial there is no jury, only a judge. With fewer people in the courtroom, it’s easier to follow social distancing guidelines.

By October 2020, most General District Courts are hearing cases at or near their pre-COVID rate. But not every personal injury claim belongs in GDC. For a more in-depth discussion about the differences click HERE.

But what about circuit court?

From March 16, 2020 until May 1, 2020, GDC, Juvenile & Domestic Relations (JDR), and Circuit Courts continued approximately 673,000 cases. Each week, with continually limited dockets, some 97,000 cases were added to the growing back log. Since June 2020, the Supreme Court of Virginia has required each jurisdiction to submit a plan that clearly outlines how that court will address the COVID-19 exposure, especially as it relates to jury trials.

  • The Supreme Court required each plan to take into consideration the following factors:
  • Guidelines provided by OES and the CDC
  • Requirements for PPE (personal protective equipment) and who will supply it
  • Developing a new questionnaire to prescreen prospective jurors that may be “at-risk”
  • Considering how people will move around the courthouse, and what signage is necessary
  • Considering a staggering of times for jurors entering the court room to ensure proper social distancing
  • Considering using other large rooms in the courthouse for jury assembly
  • Planning for a higher number of jurors to request excusal from service

These plans could be submitted to the Supreme Court as early as August 17, 2020. At the time that this article was written, 28 courthouses across the Commonwealth were approved to re-start jury trials. Click HERE for a link to the most up-to-date list.

Henrico County was one of the first jurisdictions to hold a jury trial. Each juror was given a cloth face mask, and a face shield. They were separated from each other in the jury box by plexiglass dividers. Mandatory breaks were given every two hours, with the courtroom being sanitized during each break. When the jurors began their deliberations, they were given a room that would allow for at least six feet of separation for twelve people.

While this is good news overall, it should be noted that in some jurisdictions, criminal trials are given preference over civil trials. At the end of the day, given the wide-ranging effect the pandemic has had on all aspects of life, the best course of action is to be patient. You will have your day in court, but only when it is safe to do so.