As managing partner of a California based personal injury law firm for the past 28 years, I think I have a pretty good perspective as to what is going on during the Covid-19 time-period when it comes to personal injury cases. There are three basic areas of focus in answering this question. First, how is the virus affecting people treating their injuries? Second, how are the current personal injury cases fairing in the courts? And finally, how has Covid-19 has affected the amount of people being injured in accidents?
Injured parties more reluctant to seek medical care.
According to the CDC as of June 30, 2020, 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided medical care because of fear of Covid-19. Of the 41%, 12% was for emergency care and 32% was for routine care. This is quite staggering and affects patients who need medical treatment, physical therapy, chiropractic, or surgery due to injuries caused by a motor vehicle accident. When one fails to obtain the proper medical care then their symptoms may become more suspect without medical professionals being able to physically put their hands on the patients and perform the proper medical routine testing. Additionally, patients may be slower to heal if they are not receiving the proper care and must attempt to perform therapies at home. This means that the care at home will more than likely not be as good as at a physical therapy or medical office. Many times, the therapist will know how far to push the patient in getting the maximum results during rehabilitation. I believe a patient would be less inclined to know if they are performing the therapies properly or push themselves while at home. Only time will tell how this will affect an individual’s health and rehabilitation time, or the long-term effect of the injuries sustained.
How are cases currently in litigation affected by COVID-19?
Affected cases that were already in pre-litigation or in litigation at the time that the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020 came down to the court system nationwide. Generally speaking, in California, the courts have basically been closed down. Yes, they are open for some limited cases, but the number of cases going out to trial are minimal. Having direct knowledge about this issue with our law firm’s cases, it is clearly showing that a future bog down of cases will cause a flood of cases needing trials to go out all at the same time in the future.
In two recent settlement conferences on cases that were supposed to be going to trial within the next two months, both judges stated that not only are the courts in essence closed but finding jurors willing to come down to a courthouse even with proper protocol and social distancing has been at best difficult. In fact, one judge told me that the trials may be difficult for a jury to feel comfortable since they do not want to be there for fear of being around strangers and possibly contracting Covid-19. I have personally talked to some judicial officers that have been involved in one of the few criminal cases that actually went before a jury. They advised me that they had to have jury selection (Voir Dire) where only a few potential jurors were questioned at a time while being spread throughout the courtroom. This was tedious and will take a long time, perhaps weeks or months for the bigger trials.
Though some courts have allowed trials to occur via zoom, most attorneys that I know (including our firm) do not want to have a zoom trial as some believe it might not be as effective as seeing the parties live in the courtroom. This is new territory that many attorneys seem nervous about stepping into and being the first to experiment. Who is to say if a zoom trial is better for the plaintiffs or defendants in civil matters, or the alleged criminals or the prosecution?
Why are having trials so important in civil or criminal matters one might ask? It is because it puts pressure on all parties involved to settle their case rather than take the risk of having a jury decide either side’s fate. However, when the courts are not open for trails or the judges are told they cannot be in the building because there state has been ordered by the Governor to stay at home, then all parties tend to sit in neutral. Quite frankly there is less incentive to settle the case because there is no real finality looming.
How has COVID-19 affected current and future injury cases?
Let us not kid ourselves, the general population does not care nor feel sorry for any personal injury attorney finding that his or her caseload has dropped. The Simpsons cartoon has brought this point up in a subtle way. In season 4, episode 21, Bart is talking to his mothers’ lawyer over the dinner table and tells the lawyer that he aspires to be a lawyer someday. The lawyer’s ironic response is that the world needs more lawyers, insinuating that there may be too many lawyers and too many lawsuits in the United States. This may be what people think in the United States.
The fact is that people are at home more during the pandemic and there are fewer vehicles on the road during the shutdown. Everyone I have talked to has noticed the decrease in traffic in their cities or towns. Automatically one would think that this means less accidents and less need for legal representation. All would agree that less accidents and injuries would be a good thing to help save lives and promote individual’s health and safety. However, you will be shocked by some of the latest 2020 statistics. According to National Safety Council and the Federal Highway Administration, the number of miles driven during the first 10 months of 2020 compared to 2019 decreased 13.9%. Yet, surprisingly, the number of motor-vehicle fatalities increased approximately 16% from 2019.
Why is that?
Is it because there are less cars on the road and therefore the speeds are increasing?
This I do not know. An interesting October 1, 2020, article by Sebastian Blanco of Car and Driver came up with a few possible theories about why these fatalities are up during COVID-19 and during the stay-at-home orders. According to the article, NHTSA deputy administrator James Owens stated that they were hearing from police officers that people were driving more reckless and at higher speeds with fewer cars on the road. He continued, stating that though the overall death numbers have slightly declined, the number of cars on the road also declined so the fatality percentages rose. Finally, Owens pointed out that their data suggested that the trend was that fewer people were wearing their seat belts and more drivers had alcohol or drugs in their system.
Could this be due to the added stresses of Covid-19 and how it has affected the family, people’s physical and mental health and affected their income or future income?
Only time and more future statistics will tell.