The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Austin and Houston, January 20 – The Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency stay to shut down a civil jury trial before 151st District Judge Mike Engelhart of Houston due to Chinese Virus concerns of the parties and attorneys before the trial court. The Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 decision, with Justice Jimmy Blacklock dissenting, ordered Judge Engelhardt to stop a major jury trial between Enven Energy Corporation and David Dunwoody, Jr., over an executive pay dispute.
The dispute arose after Judge Engelhardt denied a motion for continuance to delay a trial setting of the case for an in-person jury trial to begin on January 18, 2021, despite case-specific Chinese Virus (also known as the Chinese Coronavirus or COVID-19). After Judge Engelhardt denied the continuance, Enven Energy’s attorneys filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Houston Court of Appeals, which also denied the delay.
Enven argued to the Supreme Court,
“This Court has ordered courts to modify deadlines to avoid risk to attorneys and others and to take all efforts to handle proceedings remotely. EnVen asserts—with supporting affidavits from EnVen’s team and from an infectious disease doctor—that it cannot safely conduct an in-person trial in Houston now with present coronavirus circumstances and the case’s and EnVen’s team’s individual risk profiles.
“Among other issues, EnVen’s lead counsel recently lost a close family member to COVID-19, EnVen’s team has several high risk family members, and just last week a trial witness was diagnosed with COVID-19. This is a routine commercial dispute.
“EnVen sought a continuance until summer due to the current growth of COVID-19 in Harris County combined with case-specific health risks associated with this team and a lengthy, out-of-state, in-person trial. The trial court not only denied the motion; it also subsequently bumped this case from seventeenth on the docket list (just this morning) to the very top of the docket (number one), ensuring that it will go to trial now, putting EnVen’s team at grave risk and subjecting EnVen to a fundamentally unfair trial setting.”
Numerous attorneys across Texas, including within Montgomery County, have expressed grave concerns about the conduct of jury trials as Chinese Virus cases are spiking. That’s the public health concern.
An even greater concern is the due process concern. By proceeding with jury trials at a time when many individuals fear going outside or attending a place, such as a courthouse, where many other individuals are, Texas courts are sieving jury pools in manners which are unpredictable and may pose unfairness to particular parties with respect to many issues which juries must decide.
The Supreme Court of Texas has largely limited pretrial hearings involving attorneys to Zoom hearings. Strangely, however, the Supreme Court has permitted jury trials to proceed in civil cases. Those jury trials involve larger pools of the human population and would seem to pose a graver risk in contracting the China Virus. Even if that risk is minimal, however, the public perception, and fear which government officials, particularly Joe Biden, have engendered, could easily severely skew the outcome of jury trials.
Apparently, the Supreme Court of Texas has now accepted the validity of those concerns, although Enven Energy’s attorneys argued their points based upon the health risk to the Manhattan law firm attorneys who are representing Enven Energy in the Houston trial.