As Americans grow increasingly comfortable with telecommuting and remote work, many courts are still hesitant to embrace remote jury trials. While these proceedings create some unique challenges, they also make the justice system more accessible, particularly for individuals with mobility problems or other health concerns. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at issues that were raised during two recent remote asbestos jury trials.
Let’s get started!
Case Spotlight: Ocampo v. Honeywell¹
In July of 2020, a remote jury from Alameda County, CA heard the case of Ricardo Ocampo et al. v. Honeywell International Inc. This case was particularly notable because it was California’s first Zoom jury trial. The plaintiff, Ricardo Ocampo claimed he was exposed to asbestos from Bendix brake linings while performing his janitorial duties at a car dealership. He developed mesothelioma as a result of that exposure. Ocampo sued Honeywell because they can be held liable for the Bendix brand due to corporate succession.
From the very beginning, the trial faced numerous technical problems. After two days, defense counsel filed a notice of irregularities, in which they alleged that jurors were inattentive and distracted. The defense noted that some jurors appeared to be reclining in bed, while others seemed to be working on other computers. Some jurors even had difficulties getting online and staying connected, which meant that some testimony had to be repeated. Lastly, in the notice, the defense raised concerns over their own ability to proceed remotely because the court’s audio feed malfunctioned repeatedly and remained unreliable throughout the case.
Despite these technical concerns, the jury ultimately ruled in favor of the defendant. The challenges presented by this case suggest that courts and counsel need to work together to figure out the mechanics of virtual trials. Furthermore, it suggests that attorneys who participate in remote proceedings should place an emphasis on presenting a factual defense. This is because facts will appear in the record and jurors who initially missed certain details will be exposed to them when consulting the transcript.
Case Spotlight: Wilgenbusch v. American Biltrite Inc.²
Shortly after Ocampo v. Honeywell was decided, the Alameda County Superior Court heard a second asbestos case. Ronald Wilgenbusch, a retired rear admiral, sued American Biltrite after he was exposed to asbestos aboard U.S. Navy ships, which caused him to develop mesothelioma.
This trial faced fewer technical challenges than the Ocampo case. The one notable problem was a case of human error. At one point during Wilgenbusch’s testimony, the court and counsel met privately in a breakout room. When they left the Zoom courtroom, Wilgenbusch was free to converse with jury members. The retired admiral chatted with the jurors about Zoom meeting backgrounds and shared photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and a trip to Spain.
Upon realizing the error, defense counsel filed for a mistrial. They felt that the unstructured conversation would endear the plaintiff to the jury, which could impact his claim for non-economic damages. After reviewing the conversation, the judge determined it was not prejudicial and denied the motion. Ultimately, the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
The results of Wilgenbusch v. American Biltrite were promising for advocates of the virtual trial process. Here, the technical challenges could have been avoided entirely through further training for courts and litigants. Lastly, the plaintiff’s victory will be particularly interesting to personal injury attorneys, who have previously voiced concern that virtual courtrooms are too impersonal a forum to reinforce the significance of an injury.
Thanks for reading! We hope we’ve been able to give you a glimpse into the unique challenges of remote asbestos jury trials. Although some of these problems might reoccur, they can be addressed through robust technological training and live support. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to share it on social media!
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¹Ricardo Ocampo et al. v. Honeywell International Inc., Case No.: RG19041182, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Alameda.
²Wilgenbusch, et al. v. American Biltrite Inc., et al.