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How Coronavirus (COVID-19) Has Affected Personal Injury Law Firms

04/2/2020
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Florida Personal Injury Law Firm Effectively Working With Clients and Managing Cases During Covid-19 Pandemic

Sandy: Hello. My name is Sandy Smith, and I’m president of Impact Masters, LLC, which is an internet marketing agency that works primarily with personal injury law firms. Today we are trying to get a snapshot of how PI law firms are affected by the coronavirus. And in that effort, we’re interviewing a Florida PI firm. Today on March 31st, 2020, I’m talking with Sia Baker-Barnes, partner at the personal injury law firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley. Her firm is based in West Palm Beach, Florida, with an additional office in Tallahassee. You can find them on the internet at searcylaw.com. That’s searcylaw.com. Sia has been with the firm for 20 years. She’s been a partner for eight years. And I thank you for joining me today, Sia, and here is my first question. Is your office now fully open, partially open, or closed as a result of the coronavirus? Are some or all of your workers working at home?

Sia: Well, Sandy, let me start by thanking you for the opportunity to be a part of this interview. I’m very honored to be talking with you today. My office is an office of over 30 lawyers primarily handling personal injury, medical negligence, product liability, and wrongful death matters, including mass torts. So, we are presently hybrid working, which means that most of our lawyers and most of our staff are working remotely. Some of our mandatory essential staff members are working in the office with significant precautions such as, you know, maintaining appropriate distance from one another at all times, making sure that our office is cleaned day and night and sanitized day and night. Being aware and monitoring on a regular basis whether anyone is showing any signs of COVID-19 or the coronavirus. But most of our lawyers are working from their homes, handling depositions, hearings, and other matters remotely either by Zoom or some other platform or by telephone.

We have instituted on each team a daily conference call so that the lawyer and his or her staff members can be speaking as they would typically in the office typically in the morning, along with weekly team meeting calls. And last week, we had a Zoom meeting with all of our lawyers, all 31 lawyers via Zoom, just so that we can address any challenges the lawyers may be facing in working remotely and trying our best to help address those challenges and adapt to this very difficult environment that we find ourselves in. So far so good.

Sandy: Let me ask you this. Okay, you’re doing Zoom meetings among your staff. Are you doing Zoom meetings with clients?

Sia: We are. We’ve maintained a space in our office, what we call a safe space in our office to meet with clients in person if that’s what they would prefer. So, our number one priority is being of service to our clients. If they’d like to meet in the office, we do have an office available, a room, a conference room available in our office where we can be 6 feet apart, you know, end to end at the table. The office is sanitized before anyone arrives and after everyone leaves. We have the ability to DocuSign electronically, and so forth. And so, if they want to meet in person, we do that. But most of our clients we find understand the environment that we’re in and prefer to meet remotely and we can meet via Zoom. We meet via FaceTime, we talk via telephone, and we can execute documents, do everything that we need electronically. So, we’re fortunate to be able to do that.

Sandy: Okay. Now, I’m gonna ask a question as a nonlawyer. I see that auto and the traffic is really down because of the coronavirus. And so, I would expect that auto and truck accidents are also down. Have you seen that new accident cases are down? And if so, how much?

Sia: I’m not sure down here in Florida, honestly, Sandy, that we’ve been in the situation long enough to know whether there’s a reduction in auto accidents. We’re still pretty regularly getting calls and taking calls on a regular basis. I think at the end of the day, what we’re gonna find is as orders continue to be entered, you know, requiring folks to stay home, shelter in place, things of that nature, you know, less traffic on the roads I think is necessarily gonna mean less accidents. But, you know, I’m sure that companies like Amazon, UPS, and others are seeing an increase now with all of the deliveries that are going on. So, you know, my gut is at the end of the day with all of the delivery services that everything is going to probably even out but I don’t have a real answer for you yet, I think we’ll have to wait.

Sandy: Okay, fair enough. Now, and you can answer these as briefly as you want, but for your other practice areas are you seeing that they’re same or down? And I’m talking about in particular medical malpractice, product liability, premises liability, wrongful death, and commercial litigation. These seem to be the primary specialties of your firm. And I wonder if you can comment on whether or not the volumes of these different specialties have been affected.

Sia: I can and we specialize in all of those areas, including commercial litigation but also, you know, slip and fall premises liability, a lot of medical negligence cases. Right now I think in Florida, again, we are still dealing with clients on a regular basis. And I don’t think we’ve been in the situation long enough to know whether there’s a decline. Do I think there will be? You know, the less surgeries that are performed, the less opportunities there are for mistakes to be made. So, I know in Florida right now, we’re under an order, an executive order that no elective procedures should take place only, you know, urgent life or death procedures and matters related to coronavirus as is to be expected under these circumstances. So, I think, you know, the longer this goes on that there are no elective procedures and there’s less medical attention, you know, for typical matters, you know, you probably will see a reduction in those numbers.

Product liability, I’m not so sure. Because I think with folks being at home, you might see an increase in the use of product. And an increase of the things that we use around the house maybe a lot more now than we were before. So, that’ll be interesting to see. Premises liability, you know, I put that in the same category as auto accidents. I think with people being out less and less, you know, you’ll probably see less and less premises liability cases until we get to a point where we can get back to some sense of normalcy.

Sandy: Okay. So, well, it sounds like is these are really lagging indicators. 

Sia: Yeah, I think so. You know, in Florida, I mean, if you were to interview someone in New York City, if you were to interview folks in California, folks that have been on shelter in place orders for several weeks now, you know, they may have more data and more information about the impact that this is having on the specific type of case because they’ve been sheltering in place longer. Here in Florida, our order, we do not have a statewide order to shelter in place. The governor has identified areas of concern including this county, Palm Beach County, Broward County, and Miami-Dade County. And the order for us to stay at home as much as possible was just entered yesterday. So, although that just happened, you know, my law firm, we have been preparing for this in order to be sure that we can deliver the best service to our clients under the circumstances. And so, we’re a bit ahead of the game. But I think as time goes on, we’ll be able to better answer those questions.

Sandy: Great. Okay. Now, next question is, are court sessions continuing at a normal pace, or are they reduced? And when you and I last talked, you told me about something very interesting in Jacksonville. So, if you would elaborate on that I would appreciate it.

Sia: Sure. So, I can answer your question in two ways. Court sessions in some respects and civil matters are continuing, but they’re continuing both at a reduced pace and in different ways. So, I have a very significant medical negligence case in Jacksonville, Florida, which is about four hours north of me, Duvall County involving a…is a medical negligence case involving a brain-injured child. The case was specially set for trial on April 13th of this year for five to six weeks.

And just as the coronavirus pandemonium was starting to hit, just about a week ago, two weeks ago now, we were set to have all-day hearings on motions and lemony, motions related to experts, significant lengthy pre-trial motions set for two days from, you know, 9:30 in the morning till 5:30 in the afternoon. And the Friday before those hearings, our judge in Jacksonville entered an order saying everything had to be done remotely for the chief judge. And so, we quickly adapted, we utilized Zoom technology information to everyone and conducted very lengthy, complicated all-day hearings before our judge remotely.

The judge appeared from his home, you know, I appeared remotely, the defense lawyers appeared remotely. There are probably at least 12 people appearing remotely for this hearing, including the court reporter, and utilizing the Zoom technology, which I’m one of the lucky ones because I’ve been using it for about two years now to conduct remote depositions all over the country. So, I was familiar with the technology before this, and as were the other lawyers in the case, which was helpful to us. So, Zoom allows you to share your screen, your computer screen. If you have a document up, if you want to show an X-ray, if you want to show an MRI scan, or active technology, a deposition transcript, cite to a case, or cite to a statute, you can do all of that via Zoom.

And I utilize the technology and did all of those things, deposition testimony, medical records, you know, case citation statutes, highlighted parts of cases, highlighted parts of depositions. And I simply said, you know, as I’m arguing, “Judge, this witness said X, Y, or Z, and this is why I should win. And I’m going to show you what the witness said.” And I would click Share, have the, you know, document up on my screen, confirm that the judge could see it, which he could, and then continue my argument just as I would if I was in open court.

Does it come with its challenges? Sure it does. Because if, you know, the sound gets glitchy or, you know, if your connections not as good, sometimes you do have to be patient and wait until you can iron those things out. And we had a little bit of that. But for the most part, we handled things very, very effectively. And then what I did, just to be sure that we weren’t missing things is anything that I showed to the court during the course of the hearing, I emailed it to his judicial assistant in a package after the hearings were concluded. And of course, we got the court’s permission to do that. But once the hearing was done, I sent an email just simply saying, “Judge, here are all of the things that I showed you at the hearing that had I been there in person I would have handed to you.” Worked very, very well.

This morning, I was on the phone with the same judge for an hour-long case management hearing that worked very well. So, I think, you know, the only issue that I’ve seen so far… So, I had two hearings today, the one case management with the Jacksonville judge who, you know, since we’ve used it so much, we’ve been able to work very effectively and that went very smoothly. I had another hearing this morning in Broward County, that’s more like a calendar call. So, you know, it’s first come first serve. And there may be 20 hearings heard within an hour or two period of time and you just kind of have to wait your turn. You know, those are a little bit trickier because you don’t know when you’re gonna be called up. You call in at a certain time and you just kind of have to wait for the judge to call you, and it depends upon how long all of the matters are before you.

So, that one, you know, I was on the phone for about two hours. But, you know, if I was in court in person, I would have just been sitting in the courtroom for two hours waiting. So, you know, you just have to expect that you’re gonna have to adjust. You know, it’s not like being in a courtroom, it’s not being able to hand your judge a piece of paper. But if you practice with it and you use the technology, we can continue to move our cases and do a good job for our clients.

Sandy: Let me make a comment as a nonlawyer. When there isn’t a jury involved, this sounds way more efficient. Right? I think it…

Sia: No, you know, I am a proponent of using this technology. So, you know, our medical negligence cases in the past would take us all over the country. And sometimes, you know, in a product liability case internationally, you might… I mean, I’ve done a deposition by video teleconference of a witness and opponent in Korea. And so, you know, I think that there may be, although all of us would prefer not to be in a situation and prefer not to be dealing with this pandemic, it may open our eyes a bit. So, the benefits of technology and perhaps how we can more efficiently use our time and spend our money, you know, using technology and the advantages that it brings.

Sandy: Right. Okay. And here’s my final question, Sia. Tell me about your role as a member of the Florida Bar Board of Governors, and what they’re doing to help Florida lawyers in view of the current environment.

Sia: Sure. So, I serve on board, I’ve been on for several years now. We have 52 representatives around the state representing various circuits. So, I am one of the four representatives of the 15th circuit. And we work with our president John Stewart. So, he is the spokesperson for the Florida Bar in our organization. But I can tell you that as governors, we’re working with our president to be sure that we’re meeting the needs of Florida lawyers and helping them to adapt to this crisis as well. So, as an example, you know, we at the Florida Bar are governed by the Florida Supreme Court, and they give us direction, and orders on how to proceed, and, of course, our lawyers as well.

So, one of the things that we have been doing is, you know, attempting to help make sure that the court is aware of some of the challenges that are facing lawyers, particularly with things like statutes of limitation, court deadlines that may be in place. We’re here in Florida, so our justices are very skilled and used to dealing with things like hurricanes, and how they may impact, you know, our practices and affect the deadlines that we face. This is a little bit different, because at least with the hurricane, you know, we have an end in sight. We don’t necessarily have an end in sight with this. So, I think our court is doing an excellent job and we as governors are just doing our best to hear our constituents and then pass those concerns on to the court so that they can be addressed.

Sandy: Okay. Thank you, Sia. Your thoughts are appreciated. And I want you to extend my thanks to your firm for allowing you to participate in this. And I ask you to take care and we’ll talk to you another time. Bye-bye.

Sia: Thank you, Sandy. I wish you all the best. Thank you for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure. Take care.

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