The efforts of firm shareholder Jason M. Rodgers-da Cruz, together with Patrick S. Montoya of the Coral Gables-based law firm of Colson Hicks Eidson, were the subject of a front-page article headlined “This Miami Case Was Too Big For the Courtroom: Organizing Convention Center Trial ‘Like Setting Up a Show’” in today’s edition of the Daily Business Review, South Florida’s exclusive business daily and official court newspaper. The article discusses how it was going to be impossible for all of the jurors, defendants and their legal counsel to safely hold a trial at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse under Covid restrictions for a lawsuit by firm client Latitude on the River Condominium Association against eight defendants over the property’s allegedly faulty fire-sprinkler system. Even though the case was ultimately settled confidentially before proceeding to trial, the duo’s plans to hold the proceedings in the James L. Knight Convention Center are now serving as a blueprint for remote courtroom proceedings for large multi-party cases with adequate social distancing precautions. The article reads:
. . . The case, which took more than five years of litigation and multiple hearings, involved a class-action lawsuit brought by Latitude On The River Condominium Association Inc. against eight defendants over an alleged faulty fire sprinkler system with incompatible components.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey allowed plaintiffs attorneys Jason M. Rodgers-da Cruz of Siegfried Rivera and Patrick S. Montoya of Colson Hicks Eidson to work with her staff to plan for the massive jury trial. Jury selection was scheduled to start at the end of April.
Both Montoya and Rodgers-da Cruz said they believe that the imminent trial was the final and most pressing point of motivation for the defendants to offer a mid-April settlement to the condo association’s unit-owner members.
The case was so big that Bailey requested the attorneys filter through 500 jurors in batches for jury selection. There were also at least 20 lawyers and eight witnesses involved.
“Logistically, it was a nightmare in that courthouse because you can’t get more than two people up on an elevator, so if you send the jury out to lunch, it takes more than half an hour to get the jury back and forth and in the courtroom,” Montoya said. “You just couldn’t move it the way you need it to.”
Bailey said a lot of work went into preparing for the trial to accommodate everyone.
The first challenge? Finding a venue. That process took a month and involved looking at law schools, churches, auditoriums and hotels before settling on the Hyatt Regency Miami James L. Knight Center convention halls in downtown Miami.
“It made courtrooms that would otherwise be occupied for more than a month by this case, available for other cases,” Bailey said. “It allowed us to continue to try and expand the availability to jury trials as much as we could in a pandemic.”
A total of 17 people — Judge Bailey, her staff, as well as attorneys, faculty management and security — made a site visit to lay the initial groundwork for the trial plans, which were then taken to completion by the plaintiff’s two attorneys and their firms.
To set up the remote courtroom, three large banquet halls were rented to allow for separate chambers for the judge and jury. Additional costs included security, audiovisual equipment for live streaming to the public, Wi-Fi and catering to accommodate all participants. Everyone had access to escalators so people could easily get in and out.
“It was like setting up a concert. It was like setting up a show, but doing it for a month,” Rodgers-da Cruz said.
Bailey said moving to an offsite location did not affect taxpayers.
“Any cost to the taxpayers would be de minimis because the courts were not paying for the offsite work,” Bailey said. “We were taking our court employees and moving them off-site so our Miami-Dade liaison was very cooperative.”
Although costly, many parties were willing to pool their money together.
“The court took the position that, ‘If you all want to go offsite, I can make that happen, but I can’t force everyone to contribute to that,’ “ Rodgers-da Cruz said. “Of course, we went to the parties and asked if they were willing to contribute, and there were some parties that were willing to contribute. They saw the benefit of having a larger site as opposed to trying to make it work in the courthouse. I think ultimately what was important to us was getting a trial date, because with a trial date, you have pressure and when you have pressure, you’re either going to get it resolved through a settlement or a trial and that was critical. Fortunately, we were able to pay those costs to reserve the space and enter into an agreement with the hotel and others.”
For litigants with large cases who can’t afford to go offsite, the good news is there’s room in the largest courtroom at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse.
“For most cases as we go forward, they should have the ability to do this, but if we’re going to sell ourselves as a hub for commerce, trade and business, we need to be able to accommodate these larger cases,” Montoya said. “The idea that we can’t try major cases without moving it out to a hotel is kind of a reflection of how much importance we put on the courts.”. . .
Our firm salutes Jason and Patrick for their efforts to plan and prepare for the trial, and for securing a confidential settlement for the Latitude on the River association before the start of the proceedings. Click here to read the complete article in the Daily Business Review‘s website (registration required).