Illinois Update – Current Trends in Cook County Courts
Recently, Cook County Judges have provided various updates specifically concerning the state of jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Cook County Law Division, or for matters in which a Plaintiff’s prayer for relief exceeds $50,000.00, an assigned Motion Judge presides over a case throughout its pendency until the time of trial. The vast majority of motions are still being ruled upon by the Motion Judges via email or, in some cases, remotely over Zoom. Case Management Conferences (“CMCs”), which were typically held once per month in all cases in Cook County Law Division prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, have, in many instances, become obsolete. It remains to be seen if or when these CMCs will be reinstated in all courtrooms or if remote appearances are here to stay.
Jury trials are typically set by either Judge James Flannery or Judge Irwin Solganick. Recently, Judge Solganick has taken the reins in scheduling trials at “trial setting” calls, which are now held in person at the Daley Center. These trial setting calls resumed in or about mid- to late September of 2021. At first, virtually all cases were receiving very short turn-around trial dates, some in just 2-3 weeks after the trial setting, even when there had been agreed-upon dates by all counsel later in 2021 or in early 2022. However, after a few weeks, the initial trial dates filled up and as of now, Judges Flannery and Solganick have indicated that the trial schedule is effectively full through June of 2022, and trial dates are now being set for Fall of 2022. If the attorneys present at a trial setting call with various trial dates that they are unavailable for, due to other trials scheduled, witness unavailability, or other reasons, or if a party necessitates a continuance, judges have recommended that an affidavit be presented as to the reason(s) therefor. Interestingly, Cook County has indicated that all of the 50,000 + cases that were displaced due to the COVID-19 pandemic have either settled or have concrete trial dates.
On the first day of a scheduled trial in Cook County, the parties appear in person back in Courtroom 2005 before either Judge Solganick or Judge Flannery to obtain a trial judge. Each party is entitled to a Substitution of Judge (a “SOJ”). When a judge is either agreed upon, or all parties’ SOJs are exhausted, then that particular judge will serve as the Trial Judge. There are plenty of judges available to preside over civil jury trials; however, Cook County is still facing some logistic-related issues, particularly due to the need for social distancing, as bench and jury trials have resumed in person. To comply with social distancing requirements, each trial requires a minimum of two courtrooms; one utilized as the primary courtroom and one utilized as the jury room. For larger matters involving multiple defendants, three courtrooms have been required. This allows for approximately 15-17 trials to occur at a time.
In addition to social distancing, masks are also still required per the City of Chicago. As masking can create some difficulty hearing witnesses and attorneys or allowing jurors to determine witnesses’ credibility due to not being able to see their faces, the judges have largely allowed witnesses, while testifying, to remove their masks if they are comfortable doing so. Attorneys have also generally been allowed to remove masks, particularly during opening statements and closing arguments, although they must maintain adequate social distancing. Furthermore, a majority of the trial judges have expressed an increased agreement to allow various trial witnesses to testify remotely via Zoom, and, particularly as to treating physicians, evidence depositions appear to be more commonplace than in pre-COVID times as well. Although Cook County Judges have recently denied having issues obtaining juror responses to jury summonses, and, in fact, have claimed that the return rates currently have reverted back to pre-COVID return rates, the word among local trial attorneys has been the opposite, such that there has been a great deal of difficulty in obtaining a sufficient number of jurors for trials. Thus, there is a bit of conflicting information out there in this regard.
In addition, a new General Administrative Order is currently in the works and slated to be released in early 2022, which is expected to include provisions providing the motion and trial judges more discretion to hold various court appearances (i.e. bench trials) remotely via Zoom. However, civil jury trials will continue to be live with the above-referenced limitations in effect. Pretrial conferences are still generally being held remotely.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, although Cook County has always been known as a liberal venue, we have seen a bit of an alarming trend in verdicts since jury trials have resumed, such that juries appear to be awarding even higher verdicts on a more consistent basis than in pre-COVID times. This is something that has been brought up by judges and mediators in court as well as in recent mediations and pretrial conferences. This also appears to influence smaller cases involving soft-tissue type injuries, in addition to larger, more serious matters. In one very recent case, a plaintiff incurred merely $12,000.00 in medical expenses, but the jury ended up awarding the plaintiff ten times that amount, $120,000.00. Additionally, in the first trial held in Cook County since the pandemic in May of 2021, a jury awarded $43.5 million as a result of a rear-end collision involving a semi tractor-trailer. This trend is definitely something to keep an eye on, and to consider when deciding the optimal way to resolve a case in Cook County.
Therefore, although Cook County is still experiencing various complications and limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues have lessened, and trials are beginning to run more smoothly and becoming more frequent. Keeping a continued close watch on jury verdict trends in Cook County to adequately evaluate case values and potential verdict ranges will also prove crucial in the months to come.
Kelly L. Ferron is a Senior Attorney at Kopka Pinkus Dolin. She is licensed in Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. She can be reached via email at KLFerron@kopkalaw.com.