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Cook County’s debut virtual civil trial goes smoothly

Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
by Jordyn Reiland

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the court system’s day-to-day operations, it didn’t stop Cook County Circuit Judge Raymond W. Mitchell from conducting a bench trial earlier this month — entirely online.

The one-day bench trial conducted over a Zoom meeting addressed a one-count insurance coverage dispute stemming from a car crash.

The plaintiff, American Alliance Casualty Co., sought a declaratory judgment that it is not responsible for providing uninsured motorist coverage to policyholder Karen Price-Walker, who was involved in a crash in April 2018.

Both parties’ attorneys examined witnesses over Zoom, and they stipulated that the remaining depositions were available as evidence for Mitchell’s consideration.

In the 2018 incident, Price-Walker lost control of her car on the Cermak Avenue bridge in Broadview when it crashed through a guardrail on the north side of the bridge and landed upside-down in an empty lot below.

Price-Walker contended she was involved in a hit-and-run crash, but the insurance company asserted she spun out on a patch of ice.

The bench trial was set to take place in-person in March, but it was postponed when court calendars were put on pause as concerns over COVID-19 heightened.

Donald Patrick Eckler of Pretzel & Stouffer Chartered represented American Alliance. Price-Walker was represented by Anthony M. Samples of Elman Law Group LLC.

Mitchell entered judgment in favor of Price-Walker in a four-page written order issued June 16, finding that while the insurance company “offered evidence that could support the possibility of a single-car accident, the evidence in its totality was not sufficient to persuade me that such an accident was more probably so than not.”

In an interview with the Daily Law Bulletin, Mitchell said he believes this case was the first time a civil bench trial in Cook County was held virtually. As one of the first judges to test the technology in a trial setting, Mitchell admitted he was initially a “skeptic.”

But, he was “pleasantly surprised” by the overall process, he said.

“In most respects, it was no different than an ordinary bench trial that I would have in-person. It really wasn’t,” Mitchell said. “And so I think that’s the best possible outcome we could have.”

A few days before trial, the attorneys, with the assistance of Mitchell’s law clerk, did a test run on Zoom to smooth out any remaining issues. Mitchell said he believes that made a difference in the relatively issue-free virtual trial.

Mitchell said it also helped that the case wasn’t overly document-intensive.

Eckler said the circumstances surrounding this case — a small list of witnesses, cooperative opposing counsel and a tech-savvy judge — made the Zoom trial work well.

But Eckler said he has “great skepticism” over the technology’s practicality in jury trials or more complex cases.

“It was a pretty unique circumstance,” he said.

Samples said he thinks the Zoom videoconferencing service incorporates everything you would need in a real courtroom.

As a frequent Zoom user prior to the pandemic, Samples now sees other attorneys becoming more familiar with the technology and thinks it’ll remain long after the current crisis is over.

“We’ve always had the technology, but nobody understood how to use it. Now that we have the technology and we can use it and understand it — it’s got nothing to do with the pandemic. We’re going to be adopting it permanently,” Samples said.

“It may not replace being live, but it will always and everywhere be an option for people to participate via Zoom,” he added.

The case is American Alliance Casualty Company v. Karen Price-Walker, 18 CH 7429.



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