Supreme Court permits Lake County jury trial to start

A civil jury trial is underway in Lake County after the Indiana Supreme Court granted a request to hold a two-day trial starting Wednesday – the first in an Indiana trial court since the suspension of in-person court proceedings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supreme Court justices in a June 29 order approved a request from Lake Superior Civil Division 7 for a two-day civil jury trial in the case of Richard and Kimberly Sassman  V. Cheryl Grandys, 45D11-1806-CT165. The Sassmans filed a complaint against Grandys in 2018 after she was involved in a car crash with Richard, which they allege caused him serious bodily injuries.

The high court in its approval of the jury trial found the Lake Superior Civil Division 7 had substantially met the conditions required by its April 24 order and implemented precautions that will be strictly followed to ensure the safety of jurors, litigants, attorneys, court staff and the public.

Among its precautions in light of COVID-19 concerns, Civil Division 7 is requiring masks and social distancing within the courthouse in compliance with orders of the Lake County Commissioners. Significant signage within the courthouse has also been posted emphasizing the necessity of social distancing. Likewise, masks will be provided for those who do not have one, and hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes will be readily available.

The order also says that the bailiff of Civil Division 7 will question all persons as they enter the courtroom regarding the state of their health and use a temporal thermometer daily to check the temperature of the judicial officer, all court staff, attorneys, litigants, jurors, witnesses and observers from the general public.

Voir dire was to be held in an alternative location in the Lake County data classroom where appropriate social distancing can be maintained, the order says, which also has a high-level, downloadable recording system that can create an appropriate record of the process.

Additionally, Civil Division 7’s courtroom has been modified to ensure adequate social distancing can be maintained during the trial and will also be used as the jury deliberation room. Jurors will stay in the courtroom and the judge, attorneys, and litigants will adjourn to an adjacent courtroom or to the traditional jury room where argument when argument outside the presence of the jury also can be recorded.

Court staff will also clean the courtroom throughout each day and provide hand sanitizer and masks to the jurors as needed. Members of the public will be seated in a socially distanced manner using the existing jury box, the order says.

The high court’s order noted that Civil Division 7 has discussed with the attorneys “the need to be very lenient with members of the venire as to illness, fear of illness, recent unemployment because of the pandemic, and recent child-care issues because of the pandemic.”

“Although written consent of the attorneys involved has not been obtained, the judicial officer from Civil Division 7 has affirmed that the attorneys want to proceed and requested to be the first civil trial to be held after the reopening of this trial court,” reads the order signed by Chief Justice Loretta Rush. “The court staff of Civil Division 7 is ready to face the challenge of holding a civil jury trial during the COVID-19 health emergency with empathy, creativity, ingenuity, and hard work.”

Additionally, the order states that Judge Bruce D. Parent will make himself available as a resource to other Indiana judicial officers for practical and real-life best practices for holding a jury trial during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Look for more about how Indiana courts plan to resume jury trials amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic in the July 8 edition of Indiana Lawyer.

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