Long waits for trial dates in circuit and district courts in Maryland are the most persistent challenge facing personal injury cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some cases, according to Maryland personal injury attorneys, these delays are forcing distressed customers to accept low-cost offers from insurance companies.
More than two years after the disease arrived in Maryland, personal injury attorneys say they are still struggling to set trial dates, especially in major metropolitan jurisdictions. While the schedule for scheduling court dates has normalized over the past six months, the lawyers said, insurance companies are using the backlog to their advantage.
The long waits have caused many clients, already desperate to find funds to cover medical bills, to agree to low-cost settlements instead of pursuing a lawsuit where they are likely to have a more favorable outcome.
A.Dwight Pettit, who has practiced civil rights, criminal and personal injury law since 1973, said insurance companies use the fact that courts do not set trial dates to “play hardball”. He said adjusters had simply stopped returning phone calls in the case of one of the area’s major insurance companies.
“The hammer we used to use against the insurance company is, ‘All right, we’ll sue,'” Pettit said. “This threat is no longer available.”
Kurt Nachtman, of Eldridge, Nachtman and Crandell, said early in the pandemic, insurance companies settled cases aggressively. He acquitted about 30% of his open personal injury cases in the early months of the pandemic.
That changed dramatically after the courts were closed for a few months and insurance companies realized they could wait for plaintiffs, he said.
“There is the fact that the trial dates are very far away. It puts a lot of pressure on complainants,” Nachtman said.
Ari Laric, Managing Partner at Berman | Sobin | Gross, was more blunt in his assessment of the tactics used by insurance companies once COVID-19 diminished the potential for legal action.
“Our customers have been economically blackmailed,” Laric said.
There are signs that the backlog is starting to clear up. A resource the courts use to relieve the backlog of personal injury cases at pre-trial conferences.
Circuit court judges are pushing for settlements at these conferences, the attorneys said, in an effort to reduce the volume of trials. This has been especially true in cases where the difference between the defendant’s offer and what the plaintiffs seek is relatively small.
Although pre-hearings help eliminate the backlog of cases at the circuit court level, it is not an option everywhere. In district courts, which hear less serious injury cases, there is no pre-trial conference and the backlog remains huge, lawyers say.
While the stalling of cases continues to pose challenges, the lawyers said, some hurdles they expected from the pandemic have not materialized.
The lawyers expected to receive many calls from potential clients inquiring about potential cases of negligent exposure in medical settings. However, personal injury cases, especially those involving medical professionals, are difficult because of what the Maryland Justice Association’s Trial Reporter newsletter called “robust legal liability protection” for medical professionals. health care providers.
Initially, some personal injury lawyers feared that injured clients would refuse medical treatment or drop prescribed medical treatment for fear of catching COVID-19. Those fears, the lawyers said, turned out to be unfounded.
“I didn’t have that experience at all,” Nachtman said.
Much of the legal fallout from the pandemic is expected to ripple through workers’ compensation actions. Maryland’s workers’ compensation laws provide employees with greater leeway to seek damages if they are exposed to the virus on the job.
Laric, whose company handles many workers’ compensation cases, could not quantify the increase in COVID 19-related cases his company is filing with the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Board.
However, he said, his office is filing cases involving a significant number of employees considered ‘essential workers’ who were exposed to COVID-19 at work and are now battling ‘long COVID’ or other complications. persistence of the disease.
At least in these cases, Laric said, workers’ compensation lawyers don’t face the same backlog of cases as personal injury lawyers.
The Maryland Workers’ Compensation Board quickly adopted a videoconferencing system for hearing cases, he said, and figured out how to hear cases in person safely once that option became available.
“A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic where the world shut down but the Workers’ Compensation Board didn’t,” Laric said.
As a result, attorneys at his firm have been able to help clients, whom he describes as “some of the most at-risk people in Maryland.”
“It could have been really, really catastrophic,” he said.