Don't Let Virus Kill Personal Injury Biz, NJ Attys Told

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (May 13, 2020, 5:52 PM EDT) -- Personal injury attorneys will suffer themselves if they don't advance their cases during the COVID-19 pandemic, a New Jersey State Bar Association convention panel warned Wednesday while emphasizing technology as a way to overcome the business slowdown.

The global health crisis has considerably reduced new civil filings related to car accidents and medical malpractice, which are the bread and butter for many of the small Garden State firms that comprise the association's membership, according to attorneys who presented the virtual seminar "New Knowledge for the New Normal: Civil Litigation in the Pandemic." The three-day convention, normally held every May in Atlantic City's Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, is being held online this year to comply with social distancing orders. 

Keeping pending cases moving along amid limited court operations is critical for staying afloat, and that's where videoconferencing can keep proceedings such as depositions and medical evaluations on schedule, panelists William H. Mergner Jr. and John E. Keefe Jr. told the attendees of the association's first ever online convention. 

"We're actively engaging with medical providers who provide televideo conferencing. I think the telemedicine area is something plaintiffs lawyers should be aware of," said Keefe, of the plaintiffs firm Keefe Law Firm in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Mergner said his firm, the three-office Leary Bride Mergner & Bongiovanni PA, recently conducted an analysis of the firm's caseload to determine what depositions could be taken despite social distancing protocols, and found that a "significant" number had been adjourned.

"If you're already putting your cases to the back burner by not advancing them, you're potentially putting your clients in the position where they're going to have to wait for their cases to be resolved," said Mergner, whose practice specializes in commercial litigation defense.

"There is no substitute for being there in person, and that's just something we have to overcome," Mergner said.

Mergner also reminded his colleagues that Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order shutting down nonessential business operations does not mean litigation timelines are tolled.

So don't be afraid to Zoom, Keefe said.

Zoom is among the technologies that New Jersey's state and federal courts have used to keep civil litigation on track amid limited operations, with proceedings ranging from appellate arguments to bankruptcy proceedings held remotely.

In an April statement describing the "monumental" task of converting to remote operations necessitated by coronavirus safety protocols, the New Jersey judiciary said its virtual courtrooms grew from 21 to 230 within a week.

The remote operations have made panelist John E. Gregory Jr. reflect on the professionalism pledge attorneys take when being sworn in and the need to continue advocating for clients even in "bizarre and weird" times.

"I never expected to be arguing dispositive motions in my pajamas, sitting in my kitchen," said Gregory, of the Spevack Law Firm in New Brunswick. But "the show must go on."

--Editing by Haylee Pearl.

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