Lewis Brisbois Secures Defense Verdict in Seattle in One of First Jury Trials Held Since Pandemic Began
Seattle, Wa. (October 5, 2020) - Seattle Partner Rachel Tallon Reynolds and Portland Associate Alejandra Torres recently obtained a defense verdict in one of the first jury trials to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trying the case inside Bellevue, Washington’s Meydenbauer Center, an event space and theater that King County Superior Court rented to serve as a temporary courthouse, Mses. Reynolds and Torres successfully convinced a jury that Lewis Brisbois’ client should prevail in this breach of contract matter.
The Underlying Case
In the underlying case, the plaintiff, a small and local family business, entered into a 29-page commercial purchase and sale agreement with Lewis Brisbois’ corporate client. Both parties were represented by counsel at the time that the agreement was executed. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant waived its contingencies on the subject property when it entered into the second of three amendments to the agreement, and thus was required to forfeit its earnest money when it terminated the contract. Mses. Reynolds and Torres, on behalf of the defendant, argued that the amendments extended the contingency period and thus the defendant did not waive its contingencies. In addition to the earnest money, attorney fees were also at issue.
Mses. Reynolds and Torres faced an uphill battle due to the perception of Lewis Brisbois’ client as a large out-of-state corporation against a small, local business. In addition, to prevail, Mses. Reynolds and Torres needed to educate the jury clearly and extensively about the interplay between the agreement and its amendments, as well as how they related to the complicated transaction at issue.
After two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Lewis Brisbois’ client, providing positive feedback on Mses. Reynolds and Torres’ easy-to-follow presentation of evidence. Jurors also noted that understanding the transaction helped them apply the jury instructions as they deliberated.
Pre-trial processes, including pre-trial motion hearings, were conducted remotely, with jury selection taking place via Zoom. The prospective jurors completed a questionnaire that included various COVID-19 inquiries. The parties were then provided with a spreadsheet that contained the questionnaire responses from 133 potential jurors. After the parties reviewed the prospective jurors’ hardship responses and answers to the court’s COVID-19 questions, voir dire began, with groups of 18 potential jurors appearing remotely at one time. After three rounds of voir dire, the parties used their preemptive strikes, and a jury of 15 (including three alternates) was selected.
Once the trial began, several health and safety precautions were taken each day. The doors to the courtroom were kept open to allow more airflow. In addition, jurors were asked COVID-19-related questions every morning, and the parties were required to ask their teams and witnesses those same questions each day. The court also required everyone present at the trial to wear a mask at all times, even if they were testifying. All in-person trial participants were able to comply with social distancing guidelines because the Meydenbauer Center provided ample space to do so.
With respect to the courtroom layout, each party had two large tables, which formed an “L,” and were located to the right of the judge and witness table. Because the space was so large, with the jury filling half of it, microphones were placed at the parties’ tables. All exhibits were uploaded to Zoom and shown to the courtroom via a projector that was connected to a laptop and set atop a podium. Witnesses were also permitted to maintain a printed notebook of the exhibits.
Throughout the trial, the key element of assessing witness credibility was complicated by the court’s requirement that the witnesses wear a mask while testifying. Although witnesses were permitted to testify via Zoom if they preferred, only one witness chose this option.
Nevertheless, against the backdrop of uniquely challenging circumstances and courtroom conditions that no attorney had ever experienced before, Mses. Reynolds and Torres remained focused on zealously representing Lewis Brisbois’ client, and ultimately secured a significant victory.
Ms. Reynolds is a partner in the Seattle office of Lewis Brisbois and a member of the Toxic Tort & Environmental Litigation, Products Liability, Public Agency & Municipal Law, and National Trial Practices. An experienced first chair trial attorney, Ms. Reynolds prides herself on providing creative solutions to legal challenges. She was recently selected as the Defense Research Institute (DRI) state representative for Washington by the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association (WDTL), of which she is the immediate past president.
Ms. Torres is a member of Lewis Brisbois’ Labor & Employment and Construction Practices. She enjoys helping clients navigate litigation by working with them to achieve positive results with the least amount of interruption to their businesses. Fluent in Spanish, Ms. Torres has handled business litigation, complex commercial litigation, construction defect, and employment disputes. She has represented clients in jury and bench trials as well as in arbitrations.