Changes in civil trial rules will reduce costs, increase justice

Expedited track is a “win-win for all parties”

Trish Mehaffey
Published: January 4 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:37 am in

Lawyers say proposed amendments for procedure and discovery rules in civil cases being considered by the Iowa Supreme Court will reduce costs of litigation and get more cases into court.

The biggest obstacle for plaintiffs with civil cases involving $75,000 or less in damages is getting into court because trial costs outweigh the possible damages awarded. Expert witnesses in a case alone can range from $10,000 to $20,000.

But with the proposed changes, an expert could submit a report to the court instead of in-person testimony, which greatly reduces that cost.

Greg Lederer, a lawyer with Lederer, Weston and Craig in Cedar Rapids, who also was on the Civil Justice Advisory Committee to consider the changes, said the expedited rules will speed up civil trials and ensure the civil actions get into court within a year. It has not been unusual for civil cases to get bumped from the docket several times and stay pending more than a year because of budget cuts that has made criminal and juvenile cases a priority over any civil action.

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield, advisory committee chairman, said the expedited track is a “win-win for all parties” as it cuts time and costs for all involved, and still “preserves the jury trial.”

The proposed amendments stem from the Iowa Civil Justice Reform Task Force, which recommended various changes to make the courts more efficient and affordable. An advisory committee was formed in fall 2012 to implement the recommendations concerning a separate trial track for civil cases and changes in discovery rules.

The task force recommended the separate track because lawyers and judges across the state are concerned about the declining number of civil jury trials in Iowa, similar to what has happened in other states in the past 10 years. The delays in court have pushed many of the civil cases into mediation and arbitration, resulting in settlements not made public, which in turn hinders plaintiffs and lawyers from knowing what a case may be worth for the client.

A plaintiff can elect the streamlined and expedited civil action track for cases involving $75,000 or less in money damages, but parties with higher damages also are eligible if the parties agree to the altered rules.

The advantages of this separate court track from other civil actions is that it guarantees a trial within one year of filing; puts limits on discovery, experts and time of trial; and reduces the number of jurors to decide the case.

Mansfield said he thinks those with larger monetary damages will be interested in this track because it can only save them money and time.

“Most of that expense is getting to trial, and there’s the cost of trial, which includes the time spent in trial because the lawyers who handle those have to put other cases on hold during a trial,” Mansfield explained.

Lederer agreed that it still allows someone a right to a jury trial, but everything is just “simplified.” The goal is have a the trial completed in two days, so many of the usual procedures and rules are streamlined, reduced number of jurors from eight to six, and it even allows a 5-1 verdict after three hours of deliberations.

Each side also would be limited to an overall six hour limit for jury selection, opening statements, presentation of evidence and closing arguments.

“The expert witnesses can submit a sworn written report, which reduces costs. But if a defendant wants to cross examine an expert they can but will have to pay for it,” Lederer said.

Justice Mansfield said expert witnesses, such as medical doctors, charge large fees for their time because they have busy schedules — so cutting this cost is significant.

Tim Semelroth, a lawyer with RSH Legal in Cedar Rapids, said this is a step in the right direction to bring justice to more people. He added that this track wouldn’t work for medical malpractice cases, which he mostly handles, because they usually have higher damages but would be ideal for smaller personal injury cases such as involving a car accident or a slip and fall.

“Many times those with personal injury cases of $5,000 or less in medical bills would have to spend $5,000 in litigation under the current rules,” Semelroth said.

According to a survey taken by the task force, 98 percent of 108 attorneys who represent plaintiffs and 74 percent of 27 attorneys who represent defendants said they turned down cases because the costs of litigation outweigh the anticipated damages.

Mansfield said collection cases — in which there is a contract for payment and more than $5,000 is owed — also would be ideal for this track. Numerous cases such as this pending in Iowa courts, he added.

The other proposal to amend the discovery rules apply to the expedited track and all civil cases, he said. The changes will speed up the time getting into court by having the parties stipulate to sharing specific discovery upfront, much like in the federal rules of civil procedure.

The court will accept public comments on the proposals until March 17, incorporate any additional changes and make them effective by January 2015.

Decline of civil jury trials in Iowa:

2002 - 338

2003 - 356

2004 - 323

2005 -269

2006 -344

2007 - 336

2008 - 321

2009 - 263

2010 - 196

2011 - 217

2012 - 204

The decline started 20 years ago from 552 jury trials in 1993 to 282 in 2001.

* These are estimates because before 2009 "jury trial" was defined as any disposed case in which a jury has been selected, even if the case was settled or a plea was made before it started. In 2009, "jury trial" was redefined to capture only cases with a jury verdict.

Source: Iowa Judicial Branch

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