Hollingsworth LLP Conducts In-Person Civil Jury Trial Amid COVID-19 Pandemic.
Beginning on November 4, 2020, Firm partner 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. Managing Partner Donald Fowler and Firm associates Carter Thurman, Kyle McWaters, and Jessica Tabibian also participated at trial.
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. The Civic Center—a much larger venue than the courtroom—allowed jurors to socially distance from each other, as well as the rest of the courtroom attendees. This required a greater reliance on technology than usual, 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 these unprecedented times, Hollingsworth LLP achieved a favorable result for SABIC Petrochemicals.