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Christine Morganti
(505) 797-6028
cmorganti@nmbar.org

John Holcomb Urges State Bar Members to Protect the Vanishing Jury Trial

The 2009 National President of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), John Holcomb presented "The Vanishing Civil Jury Trial" on July 11 at the State Bar Annual Meeting at the Buffalo Thunder Resort in Santa Fe. Holcomb is a shareholder in the law firm of Hill Ward Henderson in Tampa, Florida. He is an active trial lawyer who has tried approximately 100 jury trials to verdict in both state and federal court in cases involving personal injury, medical malpractice, long-term health care, and products liability.

According to Holcomb, many attorneys are trying only two or three cases per year. Further, to demonstrate the decline in civil jury trials, Holcomb referred to a study taken in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. According to the study, 1985 was the height of jury trials with 3604 cases going to trial. By 2003, only 800 cases went to trial.

Holcomb listed the length of time and the costs to take a case to trial as reasons for the decline. He gave a personal example from a medical case in which the client settled for $50,000, but paid more in costs due to discovery and expert witnesses.

Rules regarding e-discovery are extremely broad, according to Holcomb, and volume of electronic documents is becoming unmanageable.

"It is difficult to respond to discovery early on in a case because you may not even know what you have at that point," he stated.

Holcomb believes it is important not to allow jury trials to vanish because the community is involved rather than a judge alone making the decision. Juries listen, watch and make collective decisions without any political gain from the verdicts.

"We as lawyers need to make the discovery process better," urged Holcomb. "A client should receive a just and speedy resolution with limited discovery."

In order to reduce the time and costs, Holcomb advised attorneys that less is best. He recommended that they produce fewer documents and take fewer depositions. In addition, he suggested that attorneys adopt efficient case management systems and develop timeframes.

Holcomb stated that education is the key. He noted that fewer than 50 percent of high school students can name the three branches of government. According to Holcomb, most reporters only know about the 1st Amendment and should be familiar with other aspects of the law. He also believes that law students and judges should be informed of the importance of jury trials. ABOTA works closely with judges to address issues they are having.

Holcomb hopes that all of these measures will prevent civil jury trials from becoming extinct.