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May 18, 2020

Texas Jury Trial Proceeds Over Zoom during Coronavirus Pandemic

It what may be a first in the U.S., Texas judges requested a jury pool to a court proceeding via video teleconference due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the country. On May 18, a panel of judges and lawyers picked a jury over a Zoom conference video for a “summary jury trial” in an insurance dispute. This is an alternative dispute resolution proceeding where the parties involved get a one-day jury trial, directly followed by mediation. The jury selection was live-streamed through YouTube with the rest of the proceedings held in private.

“For centuries, if you had jury duty, you have to go to the courthouse. In this case, the courthouse has come to you,” said Senior Judge Keith Dean, a senior judge and mediator in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

According to reports the jury selection came about smoothly with the exception of juror leaving the screen during a break and not hearing the judges calling him back. The potential juror’s earphones were plugged in to his computer, so he failed to hear the judges requesting him back after the break time was over.

“This is as strange for us as it is for you,” said attorney Matthew Pearson to the jurors. Pearson, founder of Pearson Legal in San Antonio, and senior associate Valerie Cantu represented the plaintiff in this hearing.

During the selection process, attorneys questioned 12 prospective jurors at a time, 407th District Judge Emily Miskel of Collin County creating a separate Zoom “breakout room” for the other 14 potential jurors. After lawyers on both sides went through questions on prospective jurors’ viewpoints on topics pertaining to the trial, Dean asked attorneys to “approach the bench” by creating a separate breakout room just for the judge and counsel. Once the attorneys for both sides had selected the first group of 12 jurors, the other 14 people in the separate breakout room were free to leave and go about their day.

“You can’t drag people down to the courthouse and make them sit together for days at a time,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht stated in an interview. “It’s just too dangerous.”

During the proceeding, 26 prospective jurors—with the exception of three people who failed to report to jury duty—heard Pearson explain the case of his client, Virtuwave Holdings, who owns a building in McKinney. The building suffered hail damage in March 2017, and Virtuwave is suing State Farm Lloyds, its insurance company, claiming that State Farm failed to pay the benefits it should have been paid. Plaintiffs are seeking money damages from State Farm.

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