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Hollingsworth LLP Conducts In-Person Civil Jury Trial Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

news | December 28, 2020

In November 2020, Matthew Malinowski appeared in the 18th Judicial District Court in Iberville Parish, Louisiana as co-lead counsel (along with Tony Clayton of Clayton, Fruge and Ward) on behalf of SABIC Petrochemicals for the first civil jury trial in that court amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

SABIC Petrochemicals sued The Williams Companies for several hundred million dollars in business interruption and other damages.  The case involved breach of contract and contractual indemnification claims stemming from an explosion and subsequent two-year shutdown of a petrochemical plant SABIC Petrochemicals co-owned in Geismar, Louisiana.

Conducting an in-person civil jury trial during the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges.  Among them, the court held the trial at the Carl F. Grant Civic Center in Plaquemine, Louisiana, rather than in the courthouse, allowing jurors to socially distance from each other, as well as from the rest of the courtroom attendees.  The need for adhering to pandemic protocols also required a greater reliance than normal on technology, including bringing in separate screens for each juror and special microphones for the lawyers and judge. Voir dire took twice as long as anticipated and required questioning a panel of 36 jurors (rather than the usual 17 per panel) in an hour.  Hardship questions focused heavily on COVID-19 fears and concerns but, perhaps surprisingly, did not result in any adverse impact on the representative nature of the final impaneled jury of 12 jurors and 3 alternates.  The trial proceeded into its third week before settling, without losing any of the jurors or alternates.

Additionally, the need for courtroom attendees to wear face masks made it difficult to assess facial expressions and impressions of the jurors, judge, and other attendees.  Due to travel restrictions, some witnesses had to testify remotely via live video feed.  Some witnesses who traveled from outside of Louisiana to testify live at trial had to receive negative COVID tests multiple days before returning to their home states and then faced mandatory quarantines upon returning home.

Despite the challenges of safely conducting a high-profile, in-person civil jury trial during unprecedented times, Hollingsworth LLP achieved a favorable result for SABIC Petrochemicals.