Santa Monica Judge Out to Trim Backlog in Civil Court

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge in Santa Monica, hoping to make a dent in the huge backlog of civil cases before the court, is starting a mandatory "crash settlement" program that will use volunteer lawyers to try to settle about 450 cases in three weeks.

Superior Court Judge Richard G. Harris said more than 160 lawyers and retired judges are volunteering their time to serve as referees in the three-week program that starts Monday.

Case subjects range from automobile accident injuries to malpractice to wrongful dismissal.

The crash program is an effort by the court to settle cases before they go to trial. It is modeled after two other settlement programs at the Santa Monica courthouse. Those programs, however, are voluntary for litigants while the crash settlement program is mandatory.

The referees will be looking at about three-fourths of all the civil cases that were set to go to trial in Superior Court in the West District as of November, when the court selected cases for the crash program. Harris said he hopes 25% to 30% of the cases can be resolved.

Such an achievement, he said, will help relieve the congestion that increasingly plagues the court system and often forces years-long delays in civil suits.

"We have a severe backlog out here," Harris, 60, said. "Reducing the backlog is a giant step."

A similar program involving judges takes place quarterly in Orange County, but Harris said this effort is different because no judge's time will be used. The tying up of judicial time is considered a big obstacle to easing court backlogs.

Harris, who has been a Superior Court judge since 1981, and participating lawyers said the program holds benefits for litigants and lawyers alike, as well as insurance companies and anyone else involved in a suit.

Lawyer's View

"If the system gets completely jammed up, it won't work for anybody," said William V. O'Connor, one of the lawyers who will participate.

"People want these things resolved. It's terribly wasteful to keep a matter open for an extra number of years."

A two-lawyer panel will oversee each case. An hour will be allotted to hash out a settlement with plaintiff and defendant.

The settlements will be legally binding, Harris said.

"If they reach a settlement, they put it on record with a (court) reporter, and then that's the end of the case," Harris said.

When settlements can't be reached, the referees will fill out a form outlining the possibilities of settlement, how much money each lawyer thinks the plaintiff will be willing to accept, how much the lawyers think the defendant will be willing pay. The papers will be locked away but then serve as guidelines for a judge when the case finally goes to trial.

"That way (a judge) can get into a case without a lot of sparring and fooling around," Harris said. "It's a big time-saver."

When Harris decided to start the crash program, he sent out letters to the same group of lawyers and retired judges that participate in the voluntary settlement programs. He said he expected about 50 to sign up, and was surprised when he was swamped with positive responses from more than three times that number.

"Opening up the courts is a benefit to everyone," Harris said. "To the extent (lawyers) can (help) clear out these cases, the quicker they can get to trial (in other cases) in Santa Monica."

And getting to trial at the Santa Monica courthouse is an elusive goal, according to lawyers. Like the other nine branches of an overburdened Los Angeles Superior Court, Santa Monica's caseload is unwieldy, lawyers say.

"In Santa Monica, you don't go to trial," Joseph E. Deering Jr., president of the Santa Monica Bar Assn., said. "There are just tons and tons of cases, (including) too many criminal cases . . . and not enough judges."

Cooperation Essential

Although Harris is enthusiastic about the program, its success will depend on many things, including how cooperative litigants are.

"Just by bringing a group of people together in a room for a meeting doesn't mean there is going to be a resolution to a dispute," O'Connor said.

"But if the parties come prepared to reach that objective, and panel members use their experience and skill on the subject of settlement negotiation, then something can happen to dispose of the matter in a fair and reasonable manner."

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