2020 gave a whole new meaning to the concept of the vanishing trial.
During the course of the year, Missouri Lawyers Media reported just 22 trials in Missouri that reached a plaintiffs’ or defense verdict of any size. Just 12 of those occurred after March 16, when the Missouri Supreme Court first restricted in-person hearings and jury trials due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These figures are based on cases submitted to Missouri Lawyers Media or discovered through independent reporting, and they don’t necessarily represent every trial that occurred in 2020. Still, it’s safe to say that the total number of trials in Missouri fell drastically last year. For comparison, in 2019 our Verdicts & Settlements database recorded 92 cases that went to trial.
The 2019 figures include 21 plaintiffs’ verdicts valued at $1 million or more. In 2020, there were only six such verdicts. All in all, Missouri Lawyers Media reported 64 $1 million-plus plaintiffs’ wins in 2020, down from 78 the prior year.
Many of those “missing” cases likely are still waiting for trials to resume. Others may have been resolved out of court, though Missouri Lawyers Media’s figures don’t indicate a sharp uptick in the number of reported settlements.
In 2020, 49 of the 64 $1 million-plus cases were settlements, versus 44 in 2019. Of course, even before the pandemic many cases were settled confidentially and never reported, which is why trials have been said for years to be vanishing.
Nonetheless, under current conditions it appears that many parties have preferred to wait for trial than pay too much or accept too little in a premature settlement.
Chandler Gregg of Strong-Garner-Bauer in Springfield said one of his cases recently settled ahead of a firm trial date in Howell County.
“There is no way the case would have settled except for the fact that we were for sure going to get a trial,” he said. “Without pending trials, cases just get bottled up.”
Gregg was one of just a handful of attorneys in Missouri to try a case mid-pandemic. In November, he and fellow attorneys at Strong-Garner-Bauer won $13 million for the family of a man crushed to death by the cab of a machine he was attempting to repair. Gregg said Henry County Circuit Judge James Journey began jury selection a month and a half before trial to address potential jurors’ safety concerns — an extensive process that probably would be impossible in a circuit with a busier trial docket.
“It took a lot of the judge’s time and a lot of the clerk’s office’s time so that we could get this case tried,” he said.
Other rural venues also plowed ahead with trials. In October, David R. Adair of Haden, Cowherd & Bullock won a defense verdict in a car-crash case in Wright Count. He said the jury pool initially assembled at a larger Baptist church in the county seat of Hartville before the chosen jury moved to the courthouse. In addition, one of the plaintiffs testified remotely from his home in Dubai on doctor’s orders.
Several Greene County trials were held at the Bass Pro Shop’s White River Conference Center, which won a mention from Chief Justice George W. Draper III in his state of the judiciary address earlier this month. He noted that “a large stuffed bear in the room’s woodsy décor appeared to be the only audience member.”
According to an online tracker maintained by the Missouri Supreme Court, 42 counties primarily in southern Missouri are in the most lenient phase of court operations, allowing them to hold most proceedings in compliance with local social distancing and occupancy limit protocols.
But in urban circuit courts, jury trials remain thin on the ground, with only critical matters proceeding in person and courtrooms limited to 10 people.
At a court en banc meeting on Feb. 10, St. Louis County Presiding Judge Michael D. Burton said that a return to more jury trials will depend on more people receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, including judges and court staff.
He noted the judiciary falls into the third tier of Phase 1B. Currently, Missouri is vaccinating individuals in only the first two tiers, which focus on first responders and individuals over age 65 or those with qualifying health conditions.
Burton said he hoped that there would be more direction in the coming weeks as to when judges and court staff could receive vaccinations in larger numbers.
“Missouri is just not doing as well as [it] could,” Burton said. “Hopefully we start seeing some movement as far as the vaccine goes.”
Jessica Shumaker contributed to this report.