The effects of California’s budget cuts are having dramatic effects on many Californians, often the most vulnerable. Slashes to health care services and education tend to hit the poorest in our community the hardest. One effect of the cuts which probably won’t get as much news is the effect on the civil justice system. The Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court just announced that 200 of 480 court employees will be laid off in 60 days, which means that 25 of 63 courtrooms will be closed!! ABC San Francisco News. 12 of 15 civil court rooms will be closing.
This is because under our legal system, criminal and juvenile courts take priority (a person charged with criminal conduct has a right to a speedy trial), which means that civil disputes will bear the brunt of all the cuts. This makes insurance companies ecstatic. Why? A typical civil dispute involves a negligent person or company who causes harm and injury to someone. For example, let’s take the classic case of a driver who is going too fast who fails to yield to a pedistrian in a crosswalk, hitting the pedestrian and causing injury, medical expenses, wage loss, pain and inconvenience. The driver is legally responsible for all losses and harms he caused the pedestrian. The driver usually has car insurance, and the insurance company now is responsible for the pedestrian’s damages. The pedestrian sues the driver for his damages, and the insurance company can deny and delay the pedestrian’s claim for years. Ultimately, the only thing that will hold the driver (and his insurance company) responsible for the pedestrian’s damages is a jury (the community) ordering the driver to pay the pedestrian what he is owed. However, if there are no civil court rooms available, that means no jury trials, which means the insurance company does not have to pay the bill for years (perhaps as many as five). So, the pedestrian is out of pocket for years waiting to get justice from the jury, while the insurance company holds on to the money for years. I suppose the insurance company could offer to pay the pedestrian’s bills, but why do that when nothing is forcing them to do so? There is nothing holding their feet to the fire. One thing I learned after 18 years of representing people in injury claims is that jury trials settle cases, since trials (or the prospect of an imminent trial) forces insurance companies to get real.
These draconian cuts will make innocent victims wait years for civil justice, perhaps causing them to accept pennies on the dollar just to get something now. Insurance companies will save a bundle since they know that a jury will not order them to pay money for years. As Judge Katherine Feinstein said ” the civil justice system in San Francisco is collapsing.” This is incredibly depressing news for all of us who work to obtain justice for our clients.