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Judicial logjam: Civil court expected to make up more than half of pending cases through next summer

Delays expected for more than 800 civil jury trials
St. Lucie County Courthouse sign
Posted at 6:15 AM, Sep 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-02 19:23:32-04

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — From small businesses trying to collect unpaid bills to people hurt in car crashes and landlords filing evictions, thousands across Florida wait for their day in court.

As Contact 5 reported, a growing backlog of pending cases in Florida courts could create a judicial logjam when normal operations resume.

According to a recent report by the state's Trial Court Budget Commission, circuit and county civil cases account for more than half of the expected increase in pending cases through next summer.

In a Fort Pierce courtroom, a disabled man in his late 50s waited years for his day in court. The trial in March had run for two weeks.

Then it came to a screeching halt.

"It was the last jury trial that was being conducted in Florida before COVID shut it down," Trey Lytal, the man's attorney, claims.

Lytal represented the man in a medical malpractice case. Initially delayed for a month, the same jury was willing to come back and finish the case, according to Lytal.

Trey Lytal speaks to Dave Bohman about delayed civil trial
"It was the last jury trial that was being conducted in Florida before COVID shut it down," attorney Trey Lytal says of his client's civil case, which was delayed indefinitely. Lytal says his client, faced with mounting medical bills and expenses, opted to settle the case.

Then the case was delayed indefinitely.

"He was faced with a situation," Lytal explained "'Do I wait years longer?' He's been paralyzed, unable to use his arms and legs. 'Or do I take a less reasonable settlement now?'"

Lytal said his client, faced with mounting medical bills and expenses, opted to settle the case.

The commission's report estimates more than 800 circuit and county civil cases will be delayed through June 2021.

"It really gets people negotiating and going," Palm Beach County Chief Judge Krista Marx said.

Chief Judge Krista Marx discusses backlog in Palm Beach County courts

In an exclusive interview, Marx told Contact 5, "To be in this complete stall, to a large extent, has a lot of ramifications if there's no jury trials."

According to the report, the number of pending circuit and county civil cases will increase more than 98% through next summer.

'Statewide Civil Cases Delays' graphic

In Martin County, the 19th Judicial Circuit hopes to resume jury trials this fall. The circuit has installed Plexiglass at the judge's bench and witness stand and marked the jury box and jury room for social distancing.

But the pandemic is far from over, and while some circuits are making plans to try and resume limited amounts of jury trials, pending cases continue to mount. Many personal injury attorneys fear the backlog could be so severe it will take years for the system to catch up.

"It has been, unquestionably, the most challenging time of my career," Marx said.

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