Manhattan Holds its First Civil Jury Trial Since the Start of the Pandemic

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Manhattan Holds its First Civil Jury Trial Since the Start of the Pandemic
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Three delivery workers for the New York Post filed a civil suit against their union, claiming to have been treated unfairly. Little information has been released regarding the details of the case, but it remains significant as the first civil jury trial to take place in-person in Manhattan since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel thanked the participants in the trial, expressing his belief that their participation in this new type of in-person jury trial was important and necessary.

This case is hoped to be the first of many more jury trials to be conducted during the pandemic and beyond.

If this and other cases can be successfully conducted without putting participants at any substantial risk of catching the virus, a new era of courtroom jury trials may be ahead. However, in-person jury trials such as this one present significant challenges and changes due to the effects of the virus.

For example, wearing masks and protective face shields has made it difficult for the jury to assess the facial expressions of others in the courtroom. Reading the expressions of participants in a case is a heavily relied upon human skill, and while not foolproof, provides valuable input to a juror’s decision-making process. With the use of partitions, masks, and face shields obstructing what otherwise would be a clear view of the speakers, jurors are left to infer a good deal more than they did before the onset of the pandemic.

As courts across the country have begun reopening, many more have opted for remote jury trials.

Remote jury trials are already being held all over the country with the use of video conferencing software, such as Zoom. However, remote jury trials present challenges of their own. Not only does a trial-by-Zoom significantly limit the kind of people who may serve as jurors (i.e. people with their own personal, working computers and a reliable internet connection), but opens up the case to technical difficulties. If a juror suddenly loses connection or there is another error with the technology, all proceedings must be halted until the issue can be sorted out.

With some of the first remote jury trials held over video conferencing, there were difficulties keeping the participants from speaking to each other when the judge was conferring with another party. Similarly, some jurors were suspected to be serving on the jury while laying in bed or exercising; while these suspicions were not substantiated, it does raise the question of how to keep a remote jury engaged and attentive throughout a remote trial process.

This is likely to be the first of many more in-person jury trials.

New York is not the only place to begin attempting in-person trials again. However, they are one of the first to institute procedures such as temperature checks and screenings at the door, and to use plastic partitions and boxes to prevent spread of the virus in addition to standard safety procedures such as social distancing, frequent sanitation of surfaces, and mask-wearing. This civil jury trial offers a glimpse at a potential future for the United States justice system and standard courtroom procedure.

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