It is now early May, 2020 and Pinellas County has been under a COVID-19 lockdown under its Safer at Home Order since March 26. The State has been under a similar lockdown pursuant to Executive Order since April 3. But, as many of you may recall, the anxiety over the pandemic began much earlier. Since early March, there was much news attention to the coming problem and people were being affected. So, as of the date of this article, personal injury claims, the court system and our lives have been drastically changed for two months. As the Stay at Home orders relax in Pinellas County and Tampa Bay as of May 4 and our economy reopens slowly, I felt it was important to give some updates on the status of personal injury claims and the court system.
Numbers of Personal Injury Cases
At St. Petersburg Personal Injury Attorneys McQuaid & Douglas, we specialize in personal injury claims in Pinellas County and throughout Tampa Bay. Halfway through March, many businesses began to allow employees to work from home. After the Stay at Home Orders went into effect, many workers were forced to be at home whether they had a job or not. Since mid-March, the number of personal injury accidents has slowed to a trickle. Because people are not visiting businesses, slip and falls have virtually stopped. The roads have also been virtually empty causing a massive drop in car accidents. Thus, the lack of new injury claims has started a ripple effect on the personal injury industry.
How Insurance Companies are Handling Pending Personal Injury Claims
Insurance companies were set up well to handle the Stay at Home Orders. Many insurance adjusters already worked from home, so the transition was simple. Handling insurance claims can all be done over the phone and the computer, so insurance companies were in a good position for minimal disruption. Of course, balancing children being home from school while working from home has been an adjustment for some.
With fewer new cases coming in and being assigned to the adjusters, they have been able to handle the new reality and caseload fairly well. Now, that doesn’t mean that claims are being handled the same. Based on my own personal observations and when speaking with several fellow personal injury attorneys, we have all noticed a shift over the past two months. In March, as the pandemic was beginning, claims that were close to being settled were much easier to get done. The insurance companies were moving quickly and our clients were so unsure of the future that they were eager to get claims settled for reasonable amounts. Thus, March was an absolute boom for settling claims. April has been the exact opposite.
Over the past five weeks, there has been a shift in how the insurance companies are paying claims. I am convinced that they realized that hard times were ahead and have tightened up. In my opinion, they realize that payment of insurance premiums is going to slow and that claimants are desperate for money. With less money coming in the door and people willing to take less to settle their claims, the offers have changed. In my 20 year career, I have never seen so many low ball and hard line offers. On 10k policies that should be tendered, we got offers of 2k. Unless the case is so clearly worth the policy limit, all offers have been cut. This has been across the board and for every insurance company. This is not a random sampling, there are so many of these low ball offers that there had to have been some type of policy shift by the management of insurance companies to direct the adjusters to cut their offers. I cannot think of any other reason. As a result, we have had to file many more lawsuits, which is resulting in even more unknown consequences as will be discussed later.
How Has Medical Treatment of Personal Injury Cases Changed?
Most doctor’s offices were still open throughout the shut down, but elective surgeries were put on hold. As of May 4, these surgeries can continue. Therefore, all of the people who were looking to get injections, Radio Frequency Ablations (RFAs), or other surgeries can get them scheduled. This will be a big help to moving cases along.
However, even though doctors have been open for business as usual and people have been home or out of work, no shows at appointments have been a problem. Some of our clients were too scared to go out of the house, so they canceled appointments. When we called to remind them to not miss, they responded that they believed that the insurance companies would understand their decision. As someone who has been dealing with insurance companies for 20 years, I can tell you that they are never understanding and will definitely use any reason they can find to somehow lower the amount owed on a claim. Thus, the full repercussions of these gaps in treatment for all cases is coming.
How Personal Injury Lawsuits Have Changed
As a result of the tightening of insurance companies throughout April, claimants are left to either take the low offers or to file suit. Neither option is very good at this point because our system of checks and balances, ie, jury trials, are on hold. Pursuant to the Florida Supreme Court Administrative Order, all jury trials in the State are suspended through May 29, 2020.. But, because the offers have been unacceptable in most circumstances, we are left with no choice to file suit. Normally, this would not be an issue because the cases would move along smoothly. But, during the pandemic, cases have slowed to a crawl. There are no jury trials, so all of the cases moving along the docket are eventually going to flood the system and cause delays. There is also no telling how jury trials will look once they begin again. Will the jurors be distanced? Have to wear masks and gloves? Will witnesses appear via Zoom or via video? How this all shakes out is yet to be determined, but all cases will be delayed.
As far as the personal injury cases currently in suit, the insurance defense attorneys are really dragging their feet. I honestly do not understand why they cannot get their work done from home, but I have yet to see a case where the other lawyer hasn’t asked for an extension. If I do not grant the extension, I will look bad in front of the judge, and the defense lawyers know it. So, they are delaying the cases over and over.
Depositions are still occurring, but via video. While I have always used video depos periodically when witnesses are far away or it is impossible to do it otherwise, video depos take a long time and are inefficient. Thus, a normal deposition can take twice as long as a face to face depo.
Mediations are still occurring, but via video. Video mediations are fine, but the problem is that insurance companies are not paying top dollar to settle claims. Again, they know that there are no jury trials to hold them in check, so they are “kicking the can down the road” whenever they can.
In summary, lawsuits have become much more necessary in all personal injury cases, but clients and lawyers need to understand that the cases are going to take much longer to resolve.
Status on Other Types of Cases in the Legal System
Courts are still open for business, but without jury trials. The lack of jury trials affects some areas of the law much more than others. Normal civil cases are still being heard remotely by judges. Hearings are being conducted by phone and video and still moving along. Family law, probate, and general civil cases are still operating smoothly.
But, criminal and traffic cases are on a virtual standstill. I have not had an in-person hearing since March 17, and it was very awkward. No one wanted to be there and certainly did not want to be near anyone else. Fortunately, the judges have been very understanding and lenient for procedural issues.
While the criminal courts are open, the prosecutors at the State Attorney’s Office have been working from home several days a week. They are not moving cases very quickly despite the opportunity to get deals worked out and caseloads reduced. Instead, the cases are simply frozen. Most cases are being delayed until June or later. The prosecutors are even refusing to take depositions on cases, so not much is moving. These delays even apply to defendants who are in the jail. Can you imagine being a defendant in jail awaiting trial right now? Or even worse, an innocent defendant?
A repercussion of the COVID-19 pandemic to criminal cases is the attitude of jurors. I was set for a criminal jury trial on March 10, the last day that jury trials took place. I was ready to go, and the case was continued because an older case took precedence. We were extremely lucky to be continued in retrospect. The jurors were so angry to be in court, that their answers to questioning were extremely hostile. The defendant was so scared that the jury was going to take out their anger on him, that right after a jury was picked, he begged for a plea deal. My suspicion is that jurors will be very hesitant and this scenario will be replayed over and over.
Contact a Personal Injury Attorney
The pandemic has given injured people a chance to reset their cases. We have had several people change lawyers and hire us during this break. It has given us a chance to provide better advice and attention to our cases. Overall, we will get through this and come out just fine. Until then, it will be a battle.
If you or a loved one has been injured are seeking experienced personal injury attorneys, we are open for business. We offer in-person, telephonic, or video conferences. If you are looking for help, please contact us for a free consultation. In the meantime, please be healthy and safe.