L.A. Superior Court Goes Back to the Future

In response to the budget crisis that is impacting all aspects of state government, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced several weeks ago that it will be closing ten courthouses. More recently, the court has quietly announced some major changes to the way it will handle personal injury (“PI”) cases going forward. These changes are expected to go into effect over the next six months.

  1. All PI cases (including wrongful death and medical malpractice cases) will have to be filed downtown in the Mosk courthouse and will be assigned to one of two master calendar (“MC”) courtrooms. It is anticipated that each MC judge will have some 8,000 cases under his or her jurisdiction.
  2. A PI case can be transferred to an individual calendar (“IC”) courtroom in a branch courthouse only if a party can show that the case will be too “appearance heavy” to be practically handled in an MC courtroom. Another way to get out of a MC courtroom is for a case to be deemed complex and assigned to a complex litigation judge in Central Civil West.
  3. When a PI case is filed, a trial date and final status conference date will be automatically assigned. Thereafter, the MC department will exercise little oversight with respect to each case until it comes up for trial. The MC judges will no longer monitor service of complaints and will no longer hold case management conferences.
  4. When a PI case comes up for trial, it will be assigned to a trial department, which could be either downtown or in a branch courthouse.
  5. Limited jurisdiction PI cases will be handled by two additional MC judges downtown.
  6. Court-run ADR programs will be completely discontinued.
  7. Judges and commissioners in trial courtrooms will “specialize” in only one or two types of cases.
  8. There will be geographic “hubs” for certain types of cases.
  9. There will be no court reporters provided by the court for civil cases.
  10. More courtrooms will be closed.

It is too early to know exactly how this new system will operate, but it’s clear that it will be a major departure from the system that we’ve known for the past 20 years, and it’s likely to be a longterm change. We’ll learn a lot when we start filing lawsuits and getting trial dates assigned. We’ll learn even more when cases start coming up for trial and we see how backed up the trial departments are. Some of us remember the old days, before fast track and IC courtrooms, when it would routinely take almost five years from the date of filing to get a case to trial. Hopefully, the new system, by streamlining the litigation process, will avoid that sort of delay.

If you were thinking about getting into the ADR business, now would probably be a good time to do it. Expect a huge boom in binding arbitrations, mediations and the use of private discovery referees and special masters, as the L.A. Superior Court largely exits the business of monitoring PI cases between filing and trial and completely exits the ADR business.

In large PI cases, I would expect that a recurring issue is going to be whether cases qualify as complex or the more nebulous “too appearance heavy” designation, which would allow a case to be transferred to a complex or IC judge. It remains to be seen how difficult it will be to get cases out of the MC departments downtown.

All of us who handle PI cases for a living will need to adapt our litigation strategies, and our business plans, to the new system. Stay tuned . . .