Court. It’s an in-person, close-up, face-to-face battle about who is right. At least, that’s court as we know it.
Serious business is conducted in courtrooms. It’s the way cases have been decided for centuries. When it comes to arguing a dispute on behalf of a corporate client, the attorneys at Smyser, Kaplan & Veselka (SKV), a Texas law firm with seats in Houston and New Orleans, know exactly what setting they’ll encounter during pretrial motions, arguments, and on the day of trial. Sure, a lot of paperwork is shuffled back and forth between parties ahead of time, but the battle is ultimately won—or lost—physically in front of a judge and jury.
Then came 2020. And everything changed.
Pandemic Times Call for Pandemic Measures
When SKV filed suit on behalf of plaintiff Vitol Americas Corp. in the Harris County 80th District Court in late December of 2018, no one could have anticipated the unique hurdles litigants would face just to bring the dispute to trial.
Attorneys worked overtime to build a solid case for their client and anticipated getting their day in court as usual. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck a little over a year later, however, SKV and the client found themselves in a highly unusual situation. Trials were postponed across the board to avoid gathering crowds inside stuffy courtrooms. Social distancing protocols went into effect. Harris County, TX, like many municipalities around the country, entered a partial lockdown that immobilized many businesses and organizations. Cities, counties, and states found themselves suspended in a morass of inertia, unable to make long-term plans because of perpetually changing coronavirus regulations and guidance.
Amid the process of depositions, motions, courtroom hearings, and proposed orders, SKV suddenly saw a timely resolution of the Vitol Americas Corp. case slipping from its grasp. But time is money. Confident of a courtroom victory, SKV attorneys knew that indefinitely postponing a lawsuit with more than $129 million at stake would not serve their client well.
In early March 2020, the parties were instructed to begin working toward a trial date, which was later reset for September 2020 in hopes that the pandemic would have stabilized by then. But SKV suggested an alternative option: trial by videoconference.
The idea was outright rejected by the defense, which cited due process and the importance of open court to provide the public with access to the proceedings. Meanwhile, SKV argued that the defendant’s legal team had previously consented to a remote trial in federal court in another case, that adequate technological resources were available to both parties, and that the Supreme Court of Texas had recently sanctioned trials by videoconference, even if one of the parties refuses consent. Looking at a possible postponement of an in-person trial until March 2021, SKV fought hard to get the show on the road—virtually. Despite the defendant’s objections, the court scheduled trial proceedings to take place in digital format starting Sept. 14, 2020.
Bridging the Communication Gap with AV Technology
Houston-area integrator Data Projections was selected to assist SKV with its in-house videoconferencing technology. The requirements were high from the get-go–the firm wanted nothing less than a state-of-the-art conference facility with a web of interconnected monitors, interactive displays, control panels, sound integration, and streaming capabilities.
When the Harris County 80th District Court launched its videoconference trial, SKV was ready, with a team of professional graphics consultants on standby to address any unanticipated technical challenges that should arise.
To bridge the communications gap, it was crucial that the virtual atmosphere resembled a live courtroom as much as possible. Words would have to be clear for documentation purposes, evidentiary images would need to be crisp for examination by all parties, and body language—as well as facial expressions—needed to be clearly visible to help convey intent and purpose accurately. In other words, the impression of live proceedings should be maintained to the greatest degree possible.
Virtual Trial, Real-World Success
Over the course of the five-week bench trial, Data Projections was instrumental in providing products, support, and consulting services to SKV’s full advantage. By the time the Zoom proceedings concluded, SKV attorneys had examined 18 witnesses live and presented hundreds of exhibits—all using technology installed by Data Projections—to make their case on behalf of Vitol Americas Corp.
The proceedings culminated in a major win for SKV on Oct. 15, 2020, with a judgement awarding Vitol Americas Corp. $147 million total in reimbursements and prejudgment interest. In a media release following trial, SKV attributed part of the success to its state-of-the-art conference center, designed and equipped by Data Projections.