Calif. Jury Reconvenes To Award $10.5M In Virus-Delayed Trial

By Y. Peter Kang
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Law360 (July 7, 2020, 8:43 PM EDT) -- A California injury trial that was interrupted months ago by the coronavirus pandemic reconvened this week, concluding with a $10.5 million verdict to a truck driver whose leg was amputated following an accident, in a case referred to as a "guinea pig" test for restarting jury trials in one Northern California county.

The Yolo County Superior Court jury handed up the verdict on Monday, more than four months after the trial began, finding farming company Capay Inc. liable for a forklift driver who negligently ran over truck driver Bhupinder Singh, causing injuries severe enough to result in amputation of his right leg below the knee, according to Singh's attorneys. Because the jury found Singh to be 25% at fault, he was awarded $7.9 million.

Ricardo Echeverria, one of Singh's attorneys, told Law360 on Tuesday that the civil verdict is believed to be among the first in the state since California courthouses were shut down in March. The trial began on March 2 and was halted on March 16; it had been set to resume on May 11, but that date was ultimately pushed back to June 29, the attorney said.

Yolo County Superior Court had previously announced that criminal cases would start the first week of July. Echeverria said his client's trial was allowed to resume because it was the only pending case on the court's docket when the shutdown occurred and was used as a "guinea pig" test case to see how jury trials could be handled.

Judge Samuel T. McAdam, the county's top judge, confirmed the trial's "guinea pig" status, telling Law360 that they decided to restart the trial because it would be a good opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of newly implemented courtroom social distancing protocols.

"It worked great, the jurors were very attentive," he said. "It was safe and the jurors worked hard and were very diligent."

The court had initially impaneled 12 jurors and two alternates, but upon resumption of the trial two impaneled jurors opted out. One cited coronavirus fears given her advanced age, while the other was excused due to a family health emergency, according to Echeverria.

The remaining 12 jurors did not appear uneasy and did not express any concerns about personal health risks, the attorney said.

"The court definitely let them know if they had any concerns they would be respected," said Echeverria. "But we assured them we would follow safe practices and social distancing with masks and shields during the proceedings, and with a limited number of people in the courtroom."

Jurors were given the option of wearing either masks or face shields, and only eight were seated in the jury box with the remainder spread out in one half of the gallery. The other half of the gallery had only six available seats for observers, three for each party, the attorney said.

For jury deliberations, the courtroom was cleared and the jurors were seated throughout the gallery. They took about one full day to decide in Singh's favor, according to Echeverria.

Judge McAdam, who presided over the trial, said the jury "used the big space of the courtroom" to deliberate, but were still able to maintain privacy and confidentiality.

Attorneys on both sides opted to wear face shields while making their arguments so their facial expressions could be seen by the jurors, the attorney said, and used microphones to allow their voices to be heard by the scattered jury.

"It was cumbersome but you got used to it," Echeverria said. "It felt weird and awkward for the first hour, but you just deal with the situation that you have."

The attorney said his client was pleased with the outcome, particularly given the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic.

"I think it was a remarkable feat that we could have the jury stay together and come back three-and-a-half months later to render a verdict," he said.

An attorney for Capay did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Civil trials are set to resume in Yolo County on Oct. 19, according to Judge McAdam, while criminal trials are currently underway.

Singh is represented by Ricardo Echeverria and Kristin Hobbs of Shernoff Bidart Echeverria LLP, and Stuart R. Chandler of Chandler Law.

Capay is represented by Brent D. Anderson, Katherine Woodward Wittenberg and Christopher R. Mordy of Taylor Anderson LLP.

The case is Singh et al. v. Capay Inc., case number 2017-2105-3, in the Superior Court of California, County of Yolo.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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