CaliforniaIn response to ongoing budget cuts, the Los Angeles County Superior Court has announced a series of drastic changes that will be implemented between December 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013.  Among these changes is the closing of 10 courthouses.  Also included is a requirement that all personal injury cases (including medical malpractice and wrongful death), be filed in the main courthouse, downtown, where they will be assigned to one of two master calendar departments which are estimated to have a case load of approximately 8,000 each.  The specific date this new policy is to go into effect has not been announced.  Insurance bad faith and wrongful termination/discrimination/harassment cases are not considered personal injury cases for this purpose. 

The complex litigation program (operating in the Central Civil West Courthouse) will continue, but personal injury cases not assigned to that program will be processed as follows:

·  Trial and final status conference dates will be assigned at the filing window when the complaint is filed.

·  There will be no case management conferences.

·  Trials will be assigned to dedicated trial courtrooms.  There will be 10 of these downtown and others spread around the county.  Parties will not know until the day of trial where their case will be heard, nor who will be the assigned trial judge.

·  The policy does not explain how law and motion matters in personal injury cases will be handled.

·  The announcement states that:  "At the present time, the Court has not determined whether any changes will be made to those PI cases that are currently pending before IC judges."

As to all civil matters:

·  The judge pro tem program and all court run ADR programs will be discontinued (though settlement courts will still be maintained).

·  There will be no court provided court reporters.

There are, of course, many potential ramifications from these actions, including real questions about how many civil cases will get tried, and how long they will be in the system before they do reach trial.  Even though trial dates will be assigned when personal injury cases are filed, will those trial dates be realistic, or will litigants find that courtrooms are seldom available on the date originally set?

These changes will also make it more difficult to evaluate cases.  Los Angeles County has roughly 10 million inhabitants and there will remain many superior courts spread throughout the county.  The demographics of the potential jury pools vary widely from courthouse to courthouse.  Since trial lawyers will not know where there case is going to be tried until a case is assigned out for trial, it will not be possible to form opinions about the likely jury panel makeup in advance.  The efficacy of mock trials and other methods of attempting to determine the possible impact of case facts on a prospective jury pool thus becomes extremely problematic. 

The inability to know the identity of the trial judge until the day of trial adds further uncertainty.  Since that judge could be sitting in any of the superior courts, anywhere in the county, it is quite possible that the trial lawyers will know little about the judge to whom they are assigned.  However, in order to exercise a peremptory challenge to the assigned judge, that challenge must be made in the master calendar department, at the time of the assignment.  Thus, unlike the situation where a party has 15 days to challenge a judge assigned for all purposes, a party has virtually no time to conduct research about the assigned judge before deciding whether to exercise a challenge.  Only one challenge per side is allowed. 

Hopefully, the State's budget crisis will eventually be resolved.  In the meantime, it is probably reasonable to expect that Los Angeles County is not the only county within California where litigation continues to become more difficult and uncertainty continues to increase. 

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Ferdie F. Franklin
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