An intrepid Jim Waldenberger journeyed to the far reaches of Pennsylvania to a place where few had gone before during the Days of COVID. He went to court.
To be exact, the Kline & Specter attorney traveled to Lycoming County for a civil trial on behalf of a 74-year-old man who had had his big toe and part of his foot severed when a ride-on lawnmower he rented flipped over on him while he was mowing grass on a steep slope.
The defense claimed it was the plaintiff’s fault, that he should have known better and that the mower had a warning label affixed to it that cautioned about riding the vehicle on hilly terrain. Waldenberger asserted that the company should not have rented that model for land that sloped so steeply and that, indeed, the salesman who delivered the mower had seen the land for which it would be used.
But what made the case unique was that it was among the first civil cases to go to trial in Pennsylvania since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While most counties remained shut down, officials in Lycoming County, located about a three-hour drive west of Philadelphia, elected to proceed with civil trials. But there were restrictions.
Waldenberger knew going in that the rural, conservative county was not generally friendly toward plaintiffs and their attorneys. It was not a place where plaintiffs often left with winning verdicts. The physical restrictions of the courtroom setting during the coronavirus would only make things more difficult.
Waldenberger prepared for the challenge, both in the traditional manner – lining up experts, conducting video depositions, composing an opening speech – but also in news ways. He would have to wear a mask. He would have to keep a physical distance from witnesses and jurors.
In an article for The Legal Intelligencer following the five-day trial, he wrote: “I recently tried one of the first jury trials of the COVID-19 era. Having done so, I’m happy to report that a jury trial may be readily accomplished if the court and counsel have one essential ingredient: the will to get it done.”
During the trial, lawyers and jurors were required to wear face shields as were the judge and his staff. The witness stand was encased in plexiglass and the 10 jurors were spread out in a jury box usually used by 14 people. A hand sanitizer pump stood at the courtroom entrance and there were bottles on the tables.
Not only did Waldenberger practice his opening statement before trial, but he also tried out various face shields to find the right one and get accustomed to it before the trial began. Wanting to keep the risk of contracting COVID to a minimum, Waldenberger also worked the trial solo. No paralegal, no support staff. He managed to get all his necessary documents compressed into his laptop and three boxes that he rolled into court each day using a cart borrowed from his hotel.
“In my opening, I explained how COVID would affect my presentation of witnesses,” Waldenberger wrote. “I presented my two clients, who attended the trial every day albeit socially distanced from me, called two employees of the defendant as on cross, and played my four expert Zoom videos. I rested in less than three days. I wanted to be quick and mindful of the jurors’ service under these conditions.”
The result was a $2.3 million verdict, with the company found 85 percent liable.
Waldenberger concluded in his Legal Intelligencer article: “Turns out face shields, masks, and social distancing won’t get in the way of the administration of justice for your clients, and if counsel and the court have the will to try the case, a way can be found.