The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted daily life for many of us here in Maine. The court system is not immune to these changes. The state and federal courts in Maine have taken dramatic steps to fight the pandemic with physical distancing measures, issuing a series of emergency orders that have temporarily changed the rules and procedures that govern civil claims such as personal injury or medical malpractice cases. Here is what these emergency orders mean for your case―whether you have a pending case that has already been filed or think you may have a new claim.
The Courts Have Limited Hearings and Postponed Trials
While most courthouses remain open, the state court system has placed limits on public access to the courthouses and the cases that they will hear. Through at least May 1, 2020, state courts will only schedule in-person hearings in certain criminal, protection from abuse and harassment, child protection, guardianship, and mental health cases. This means that some hearings important to pursuing a civil claim in Maine, including medical malpractice screening panels, have been suspended. The United States District Court for the District of Maine has implemented similar rules.
Jury trials and jury selection have also been postponed in both state and federal courts until June 2020, at the earliest. When trials resume, we expect that a backlog of criminal cases―which are generally given trial scheduling priority because of Constitutional considerations―will occupy most of the courts’ schedules. This means that civil jury trials in Maine may not occur until several months after emergency orders are lifted. However, the state courts are considering steps to clear this backlog, including bringing back recently retired justices to conduct jury trials.
Your Pending Case Will Continue, With Some Changes
Despite courthouse closures and cancellations, pending lawsuits continue to move forward. Our attorneys are actively working with expert witnesses, filing and responding to motions, and pursuing discovery in pending cases. Courts are still issuing rulings on pending motions. Additionally, the state courts have clarified that court reporters are authorized to administer oaths and take testimony remotely, if they can both see and hear a witness through an audio-video connection. This allows us to conduct remote video depositions, where our clients, attorneys, and other witnesses do not need to leave their homes if they have access to a computer.
Our attorneys also continue to conduct mediations―settlement conferences that are required by the court―through videoconferencing.
The courts have issued an emergency order that indefinitely extends certain unexpired deadlines by seven weeks. This deadline extension may cause delays in resolving cases; however, it also ensures that we have adequate time to work with you to meet certain deadlines if the pandemic significantly interrupts your life.
If You’ve Been Injured, You Can Still File a New Lawsuit
The emergency orders related to Maine’s court systems do not prevent anyone from filing a new lawsuit. If you think you may have a personal injury or medical malpractice claim or have legal questions about your situation, please contact our offices. We continue to meet with new clients by e-mail, phone, and video conferencing.
Importantly, the COVID-19 emergency orders in Maine have not paused or delayed the statutes of limitations that require persons to bring their civil claims within a certain period of time. In other words, time could be running out on your potential claim. The only way to know for sure about the statute of limitations in your specific case is to speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.