Southern California’s first remote jury trial wrapping up in San Bernardino County – LA Daily News

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Jurors began hearing closing arguments Monday in San Bernardino Superior Court in a trial pitting a Yucaipa woman against biotech giant Monsanto, but it had been months since they had stepped foot inside the courtroom.
About six months after the county resumed in-person jury trials following the pandemic-inspired hiatus, several attorneys representing the defunct Monsanto Co., two court staffers and a juror all tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks into trial, bringing it to a halt in August.
That’s when Paul R. Kiesel, one of several attorneys representing plaintiff Donnetta Stephens, suggested the trial be conducted remotely, via Zoom. Judge Gilbert G. Ochoa agreed.
Kiesel’s firm, Kiesel Law LLP, provided jurors with Chromebook laptop computers to view testimony and exhibits from the comfort of their homes, and Altadena-based MotionLit Services Inc. provided the Zoom platform and prepared exhibits to be presented electronically during trial.
“I am in the unique position of being involved in the very first remote jury trial in Southern California,” Kiesel said during a telephone interview Monday. “I’m watching closing arguments in my office in Beverly Hills while I’m talking to you.”
Stephens, a 71-year-old Yucaipa resident, sued The Monsanto Co. in August 2020 alleging her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was caused by more than 30 years of using the herbicide Roundup, which Monsanto manufactured.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer released findings concluding that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was among the cancers most associated with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, according to the lawsuit. Hundreds of lawsuits making similar allegations have been filed against Monsanto, Kiesel said.
The first remote trial in San Bernardino County and Southern California presented an opportunity for MotionLit, which provides technology and media services to lawyers and courts for civil cases, including Zoom platform technology, video-recorded interviews with plaintiffs and expert witnesses, and animation and graphics for exhibits and presentations.
“We’re a full-service litigation support company,” said Vache Garabedian, who started MotionLit in 2013 wit his identical twin brother, Vahe. He said MotionLit plans to use the Stephens case as an example to highlight the advantages of remote trials during company seminars across Southern California.
“This is really the new way I see trials happening. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” Garabedian said.
For example, remote trials would mean that a lack of transportation to get to and from court would no longer be an issue for some potential jurors. And COVID-wary jurors could feel safer serving at home, Garabedian said.
The inaugural remote trial, however, was not without a few glitches. Some of the jurors lost their internet connections, which would halt proceedings until they were back online, Kiesel said.
“They’d have to stop the trial and the court reporter would have to read back the testimony the juror had missed. That probably happened at least a dozen times,” Kiesel said. “There were more technical glitches that were due to bandwidth at juror or witness homes or where they were testifying from.”
Kiesel said one juror had a bandwidth issue and had to go to the court to use its Wi-Fi connection. Another juror’s Chromebook was defective and was replaced the following day, he said.
“I would say it’s probably at about an 85 percent efficiency level,” Kiesel said. “But I would say for the attorneys and the witnesses, it was a remarkably gentle process for a trial that’s taken five months to complete.”
Now, with attorneys, court staff and jurors recovered from their COVID-19, Ochoa decided it was time for everyone to get back into the courtroom to wrap up the trial.
“A few weeks ago, the court let everybody know that, since we started in person … that everybody should come back and hear closing arguments and deliberate in person,” Kiesel said.
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