The monthlong civil trial that ended last week in Hall County Superior Court may be the county’s longest ever, but it likely won’t be the last.
Numerous longtime court observers agreed that the stormwater runoff case brought against a supermarket chain by a Flowery Branch couple was the longest civil trial Hall County has ever seen. It started April 19 and lasted until May 18, in its fifth week.
Only one criminal trial in Hall County, the 1988 case of convicted child killer Rudi Bromley, approached it in length, at four weeks.
Robert W. Chambers III, the attorney who successfully represented physician Gary Kempler and his wife, Lynn Kempler, in their lawsuit against Ingles Supermarkets, Inc., noted that the couple spent nearly $400,000 on experts and legal costs in order to win a $1.4 million jury judgment.
Attorneys and legal experts say it takes deep pockets to successfully take on the resources of a multimillion-dollar corporation. And when both sides have ample resources, the trial can become extensive, and long.
“This kind of case for Hall County is fairly rare, and may not have happened before at all,” said Richard Waites, a trial consultant who has experience in Hall County courts.
Jury trials lasting weeks or even months are not as unusual in large metropolitan jurisdictions, and tend to become more common as an area becomes more urbanized, Waites said.
Waites said as a county grows in population and more land is developed, more disputes over that development will wind up in the courts. And environmental cases like the Kemplers’ lawsuit, involving a commercial stormwater detention pond that created runoff erosion and dumped silt onto their land, can prove complex, Waites said.
“As these areas expand and become more dense, there are going to be more lawsuits, of different kinds that the county has never experienced before,” Waites said. “The community of Gainesville has changed so much in 30 years. As the world becomes more interrelated and the community grows, having more complicated lawsuits that take more time to try is part of the territory.”
Chambers said the jury got between 500 and 700 pieces of evidence, culled from 18,000 pages of documents obtained by the plaintiffs.
He said another factor that affected the length of the trial was the fact that the defendants, which included Ingles and two contractors, put up a united front.
“It would have been different if one party had implicated another,” Chambers said. “Instead they decided to circle the wagons and implicate the Kemplers.”
The lead defense counsel for Ingles has declined to comment on the case and a corporate spokesperson did not return a phone message left last week. Other attorneys involved in the case could not be reached.
The number of attorneys involved affected the pace of the case as well, Chambers said.
“You’ve got to remember, there were seven lawyers on the other side, so every objection took three times longer.”
The National Center of State Courts estimates the average length of all jury trials in the U.S. is three to seven days, with civil cases tending to take longer than criminal trials, said Greg Hurley, a senior researcher for jury studies.
“Obviously, this is a much longer than average trial,” Hurley said of the Hall County case.
Hurley said national statistics show civil jury trials are actually on the decline, with more cases being settled through court-ordered mediation.
While the Ingles case involved hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs for both sides, the biggest cost may have been the weeks that a panel of jurors spent away from their jobs.
Those jurors have not been able to comment about the trial because they were instructed by presiding Judge C. Andrew Fuller not to discuss the case in case they are called back to decide any post-judgment matters.
Throughout the trial, Fuller accommodated jurors as best he could, at times meeting individually with them to help them handle the hardships the lengthy jury service created.
Waites said though judges don’t have a lot of control over how long a trial will be — much is dictated by the trial strategies of the parties — they can work to make jury service as bearable as possible under the circumstances.
“If they feel like a trial is going to be a long trial, they won’t push jurors to be there at eight o’clock and stay until six, five days a week,” Waites said. “That’s punishment. Judges try to adjust the schedule so it’s not as much of a hardship on the jurors.”
“It’s tough to be a juror in a long trial,” Waites said. “Because you have family obligations and business obligations that you have to work around the court. There’s just a lot of work in being a juror. It’s hard sitting in a chair for that many hours a day for that long.”