United States: Can Civil Litigation Be Prompt, Efficient, And Cost-Effective? Maybe In Alabama

In September of this year, Alabama joined the more than 25 other states with a procedure for the expedited handling of certain civil actions. The Alabama Rules for Expedited Civil Actions were created pursuant to Alabama Code 6-1-3(a) and become effective January 1, 2017. The new Rules only apply to circuit court civil actions where the damages are less than $50,000, the parties agree to the assignment of the action to an expedited track, and the subject of the action does not fall into certain categories such as family law or real property law. Even under the expedited track, jury trials are permitted.

For assignment to the expedited track, the plaintiff merely states in the complaint his election to the expedited track and that damages will not exceed $50,000, inclusive of interest, costs, and attorney fees. If the defendant objects, his answer should so specify, and the action will not be assigned to the expedited track. Or, if the plaintiff does not seek assignment to the expedited track in her initial complaint, she may later amend by merely declaring damages will not exceed $50,000. Additionally, with a showing that the claims are worth more than $50,000 and that the supporting evidence was not known at the time of filing, a plaintiff who has initially opted for the expedited track may seek removal.

One of the central aspects of the new Rules is a form scheduling order created by the Alabama Supreme Court. The order is to be incorporated into the scheduling order entered by the circuit court. Under it, discovery must be completed within 120 days following the filing of the defendant's answer (if multiple defendants, following the filing of the last timely answer). Written discovery is limited to 50 questions per party (inclusive of interrogatories, requests for production, and requests for admissions), and only one fact witness deposition per party is permitted. Importantly, the scheduling order defines party as all parties represented by the same lawyer or law firm, so the discovery rules cannot be easily skirted by multiple representation. Expert testimony is permitted, though its form is restricted and disclosure requirements apply.

Unlike in district court actions, the parties have a right to a panel of 12 jurors. Even trial is expedited, however, with opening statements, the presentation of evidence, and closing arguments presumptively limited to five hours per party.

Whether Alabama's expedited civil action procedure results in the "prompt, efficient, and cost-effective" resolution of civil actions it intends to promote remains to be seen, but the Alabama Supreme Court is scheduled to evaluate the effectiveness of the Rules 18 months after their enactment.

Other jurisdictions who have implemented similar rules have seen use of the program, though their use may be limited. For example, Nevada's Eighth Judicial District (which includes Las Vegas) has collected data on the use of its Short Trial Program since implementation in 2001. In 2015, only 17 cases stipulated to the program and 83 short trials were held. The number of cases stipulated was actually down from 53 in 2005. Thus, while litigants appear to continue finding the program useful, it is not used extensively.

As it stands, where a plaintiff knows his case is limited in value and seeks a quick resolution, consent to the damages limit could be worthwhile. On the defense side, in a simple case, there may be little or no reason to object to the expedited track. With the jurisdictional limit of Alabama district courts limited to $10,000, the expedited track provides the opportunity for a jury trial and a limited, though higher amount in controversy.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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