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SKV Bench Trial Via Zoom

How AV Technology Won Big in Harris County Court

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 court business is conducted in courtrooms. It’s the way civil (and criminal) cases have been fought out and settled for centuries. And 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 pre-trial motions, arguments, and on the big day of trial. Sure, there’s a lot of paperwork being shuffled back and forth between parties ahead of time, but the battle is ultimately won – or lost – in front of a judge or a jury. Right there, in front of a bench, under the scrutinous eyes of legal professionals, peers, and onlookers. 

Attorneys typically prepare for weeks or months to get all relevant information from clients, to investigate opposing parties, hone courtroom strategies, conduct dispositions, interview witnesses, and to design a winning courtroom presentation down to the minutest of details. Once the big day of trial arrives, all the “I”s have been dotted and all the “T”s have been crossed. Everyone is ready for the final showdown in court. 

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 nearly two years ago, 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 to get their day in court within the foreseeable future. 

When the coronavirus pandemic struck a little over a year later, SKV and its client found themselves in a highly unusual situation. Trials were postponed across the board to avoid gathering crowds of people inside stuffy courtrooms. Social distancing protocols went into effect. Harris County, Texas, like many municipalities around the country, entered a partial lock-down that immobilized many businesses and organizations. Cities, counties, and states found themselves suspended in a morass of inertia and, simultaneously, perpetual change as the landscape of coronavirus regulations and guidance changed constantly.

Amid dispositions, motions, courtroom hearings, and proposed orders, SKV suddenly saw a timely resolution to the Vitol Americas Corp. case slipping from its grasp. But time is money. The mantra certainly holds true in high-stakes legal disputes where court judgements can result in either the procurement or loss of valuable financial resources (and their potential to garner interest). Highly confident of a courtroom victory, SKV attorneys knew that the indefinite postponement of 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 late September, 2020, in hopes the coronavirus situation would stabilize by then. SKV suggested an alternative, however – trial by videoconference. The idea was outright rejected by the opposing party, 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 legal case, that adequate technological resources are available to both parties, and that the Supreme Court of Texas had just 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, but for real. 

The judge in the case eventually settled the matter. Despite the defendant’s objections, trial proceedings would take place in digital format, starting Sept. 14, 2020.

Bridging the Communication Gap with AV Technology

Data Projections, Inc., is a Houston-area audio-visual integrator that has served Texas businesses, organizations, and educational institutions for more than 30 years. Launched by Linda and Bill Zaleski in 1987, the company started out selling overhead projectors. Over the years, the company has grown into a multi-faceted AV technology and solutions provider and consultant featuring a comprehensive lineup of digital communication solutions, including ZoomRooms, video walls, display systems and screens, and control panels for even the most complex video conferencing needs. 

In the case of Data Projection’s client, SKV, the requirements were high from the get-go. Nothing less than a state-of-the-art conference facility with an intricate web of interconnected monitors, interactive displays, control panels, sound integration and streaming capabilities would do. 

When the Harris County 80th District Court launched its videoconference trial on Sept. 14, SKV was ready – with a team of professional graphics consultants on standby to address any unanticipated technical challenges, if needed. 

For Data Projections, SKV, and Vitol Americas Corp., a lot would ride on a positive outcome of the trial. To bridge the communication gap, a virtual atmosphere resembling a live courtroom feeling as much as possible would be crucial. 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 should 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 a lengthy 5-week bench trial, Data Projections was instrumental in providing products, support and consulting services to SKV’s full advantage. By the time the proceedings on Zoom concluded, SKV attorneys had examined 18 live witnesses and presented hundreds of exhibits 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. 

Moving Forward: How AV Technology Can Shape Courtrooms

From interviewing witnesses or experts who are unable to appear in person, to presenting digital exhibits or evidence and reducing live interactions during a pandemic: does AV technology have a place in the modern U.S courtroom?

The answer: it already does! Many state and local courts, for example, already allow certain hearings to be completed remotely – traffic-related hearings, for example, or first appearances in some criminal matters. Appellate courts also increasingly greenlight remote proceedings. 

From a recent article by Sarah Andropoulos, published by Justia on March 24, 2020:
“Many courts across the US have been incorporating technology and remote proceedings into their operations for some time. With the rapid onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting social distancing policies, courts at all levels of the judicial system are working to accelerate the adoption of videoconferencing and other means of holding remote proceedings. 

While this technological transformation will serve to protect public health for most, this objective must be balanced against constitutional and other concerns. However, if courts can find ways to build tech infrastructure into their everyday operations to a greater degree, this can potentially serve to make the legal system more efficient and accessible for all.”

Efficient and accessible communication and collaboration is exactly what Data Projections hopes to facilitate with its audio-visual solutions. As technological innovation and implementation becomes an essential tool for businesses and organizations across sectors and industries, demand for AV expertise continues to climb.