At a conference of Los Angeles attorneys on February 21, 2013, presiding Superior Court Judge Buckley announced various changes that may be implemented in the Los Angeles court system within the next several months. These changes will significantly impact the amount of time it takes to bring matters before the court, as well as the accessibility of the court system to litigants. The changes are in response to anticipated budget cuts totaling between $56 million and $85 million. Because the exact amount of the budget reduction is not yet known, the proposed plan set forth by Judge Buckley remains subject to change.
Details of the Proposed Plan
Under the proposed plan, ten courthouses in Los Angeles County will close, resulting in a greater number of cases at each remaining location. Court staff will also be significantly reduced. To best accommodate the higher caseloads, judges will be dedicated to particular types of civil cases. Certain courthouses will also be designated as “hubs” for certain case types to centralize matters into as few courtrooms as possible. For some types of cases, a master calendar system will be employed, under which cases are not assigned to a particular judge but instead heard at one of the designated hubs for pretrial motions and hearings, and then transferred to a trial-ready courtroom.
For unlimited civil matters (case value exceeds $25,000) that fall under the “personal injury” designation, including but not limited to product liability, medical malpractice, premises liability and wrongful death matters, numerous changes will take place. All future personal injury matters will be initially heard in one of three departments of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Five judges will preside over these departments, cycling through on an as-yet unidentified schedule. It is anticipated that these five judges will handle approximately 20,000 cases.
When an unlimited personal injury case is filed, a trial date will be assigned within roughly 18 months of filing. It is anticipated that periodic case management conferences will no longer be held. To file a motion based on disputes occurring in discovery, an informal conference between the attorneys will first be required. Pretrial motions will be heard within one of the three departments, and when the case is ready for trial, it will be assigned to one of 31 trial courtrooms in Los Angeles. Ten of these trial courtrooms are located downtown, with the rest located in districts around the county. The location where the injury took place will not be considered in assigning the case to a trial courtroom, with the sole criteria being which location is prepared to accept the trial.
Certain cases will be exempted from these altered rules and will continue to be heard in front of a particular judge for all purposes. This includes cases that the court determines are “complicated” due to (1) the type of injury, (2) the length of trial, (3) the number of parties, (4) the number of documents and witnesses involved, (4) the number of hearings and motions necessary or (5) the complexity of the legal issues. These cases will be heard under the traditional system in the courthouse serving the area where the injury or loss occurred.
The proposed changes are similar for limited civil matters (case value is less than $25,000), which will be consolidated in only one department within Stanley Mosk Courthouse. Only two judges will be responsible for hearing all limited cases. These cases will be transferred to a trial-ready courtroom without regard for the location where the injury occurred.
The court’s Alternative Dispute Resolution programs will be closed, with no referrals accepted after March 1, 2013. Only the Civil Settlement Courts will remain open.
Transition to the Proposed Plan
The changes described above are set to begin on March 18, 2013. Beginning on that date, all personal injury and limited civil filings must be made at the downtown Stanley Mosk Courthouse. For those matters already pending, the parties will be notified of their transfer to Stanley Mosk between March 11 and March 18, 2013. However, transfer will not occur for those unlimited civil personal injury matters that are deemed “complicated.”
It remains to be seen whether all of these changes will be implemented, or if greater reductions will be required in light of the impending budget cuts. It is certain, however, that the changes will cause marked delays as fewer judges and staff attempt to manage greatly increased caseloads. Anticipating trial results will be less predictable, as there will be more uncertainty as to the judge and jury that will hear the trial, given the potential for random trial assignment at any of 31 locations within the county.