California Asbestos Trials in the Age of COVID-19

By: IAN WILLIAMSON, San Diego

We continue to monitor how various courts in California are handling asbestos trials. The situation is unsurprisingly fluid.  Some courts have started trials and we are closely following those.

San Francisco assigned one case to a trial judge on June 26, 2020. Discussions of how that matter would proceed to trial were ongoing when the case resolved. Generally, remote jury selection was discussed. There were discussions about how to have the jurors in court – socially distanced and having virtually all witnesses appear remotely.

In Alameda County (Oakland), jury selection is ongoing in two cases. These are both living mesothelioma cases with preference trial dates. Both cases had been initially set for trial in March. Jury selection is being conducted remotely – with hardships and questionnaires done electronically and voir dire via Zoom. Both cases appear headed to a situation where the jurors are participating 100% remotely unless they do not have the technical ability to do so. It appears that all witnesses will appear remotely. Defendants have raised significant due process concerns, and in one case petitioned the Court of Appeal for a writ. The Court of Appeal denied the petition as premature, even while acknowledging that serious fairness issues were being raised.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt trials as court implement safety procedures.

Los Angeles County does not have any jurors available yet, but has just started re-issuing jury summonses. It is anticipated that all of the first wave of jurors will go to criminal cases. There are several preference cases pending trial that are being continued on a rolling 15-day basis (per the preference statute) until a jury pool is available. The court has urged parties to waive a jury (neither side has agreed) or consider smaller jury panels. The court is setting new preference trial dates in the fall, but noting that those trial dates are “not realistic” and the cases will likely be continued until there are juries available.

Low priority cases – such as wrongful death cases and non-preference personal injury cases – are being continued into 2021 in all three venues. When and how the courts will catch up on those remains to be seen.

All three of California’s primary asbestos courts are utilizing the MSC process to try to facilitate resolution of cases. Los Angeles and Oakland are ordering remote MSCs. San Francisco required counsel to appear in person. None of these courts are requiring client or carrier representatives to travel to appear in person.

Courts with very few cases (Fresno, Sacramento, Solano, etc.) do not seem to be treating asbestos cases any different than any other cases–meaning we do not anticipate trials before 2021.

Federal courts generally remain in operation but jury trials seem to be limited to criminal cases only. We are not aware of any Federal asbestos cases being called to start jury trials since the pandemic shut court operations down.

Visit the Gordon & Rees COVID-19 Hub for ongoing updates.