Civil case backlog stretches to 4 years

Oldest such suit -- over cows on loose -- goes to trial this week

June 29, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The case could be a metaphor for a growing Carroll County: Black Angus cows wander out of their pasture into a main road at night, and two are struck by a motorcycle and a car. The cattle die; the motorists sue for damages.

The March 1995 accident near Mount Airy soon landed in Circuit Court, and what became known as "the cow case" has become the county's oldest civil case, other than some continuing divorce and child-support battles, the court clerks said.

Almost four years after it was filed, the lawsuit is set for a jury trial this week.

Carroll has more residents per judge than any other county in the state, and its civil caseload has been growing as new people move in, causing court officials to fear a backlog. Cases filed in February are receiving trial dates well into next year.

But the cow case was unusual, the attorneys agree.

Farmers James Austin Knill and his father, C. William Knill, a former president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, declined to talk about the case -- but they want to go to trial, said their attorney, Michael H. Burgoyne.

"They don't believe they did anything wrong and they feel if they lose this case, then 90 percent of the Carroll County farmers need to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars upon their fences," Burgoyne said. "The issue is whether they used reasonable care in installing fencing on their property."

James G. Beach III, representing the motorcyclist, agreed. "The question is the duty to keep animals restrained, especially when you abut a major thoroughfare."

The lawsuit claims the 600- to 700-pound animals had escaped once before -- in 1994 -- and the barnyard gate was secured only with baling twine to keep them from wandering again onto Ridge Road (Route 27).

Burgoyne, Beach and E. Lynn Hoffman, representing the second driver, said no single factor made their case the oldest. They've had settlement talks, exchanged information, taken depositions -- and talked settlement again. They had a court date once, but another trial ran long. They waited six months or more, then wrote to the court about the delay.

But Carroll at the time had a small surge in its criminal caseload, and civil cases had to be delayed, Burgoyne said.

Civil cases outnumber criminal by about 3-to-1, said Carroll's elected clerk of the Circuit Court Larry W. Shipley, with about 2,300 civil cases last year compared with about 750 criminal cases.

Circuit Courts' civil caseloads statewide normally outnumber criminal cases, but the increase in Carroll was up from a 2-to-1 ratio in 1995, he said. Criminal cases involve constitutional speedy-trial rights, which in Baltimore have recently led to the release of defendants.

The vast majority of civil cases include: divorces, child support, custody and other domestic issues; mortgage foreclosures, liens and judgments; hand-lettered prisoners' petitions; motor-vehicle accidents and claims of medical malpractice; business and other contract disputes; appeals of workers' compensation cases and other administrative hearings; and appeals from the District Court.

Shipley doesn't like the word "backlog," because "under the most ideal conditions, you will always have a backlog on the civil side, because of the time frame that it takes for things to happen. I would say at any one time, at least a third of the cases have not even reached the point of being ready for trial."

Pretrial work

"Key to managing our caseload," he said, are about 30 local lawyers who serve as settlement masters, trying to resolve civil cases before trial and succeeding with 65 percent to 75 percent.

The type of civil cases generally varies little, said Shipley, although some follow a pattern: Divorces increase around the holidays and just before the New (tax) Year, and adoptions increase in August before school starts.

Recently, Shipley said, he has noticed an increase in mortgage foreclosures. "That kind of surprises everybody because the economy has been so good, [but] people are just overextended because the economy is so good. That money is so easy to get -- and they use their home to get it."

Doris Haines, the civil supervisor, said that as of Friday, 1,025 lawsuits have been filed this year, including 284 divorces, 128 child support and custody cases, 54 motor vehicle accidents and 126 foreclosures.

Some of the cases filed early this year are just beginning to work through the system. They include a girl bitten by a dog at a slumber party, a changed will that cut out one side of the family, a lawyer and his former clients suing each other, an accountant claiming he was defamed and two teen- agers alleging police brutality at a carnival.

Burgoyne, the farmers' attorney and a Sykesville town councilman, said he defends insurance companies throughout the metropolitan region against claims and was surprised that what's become known as "the cow case" is the oldest in Carroll. He said he just finished trying a 1994 case in Howard County and 25 to 30 older accident cases are pending in Baltimore.

`A relative thing'

"I think it's a relative thing," he said. "You're generally going to get faster trials in rural counties, even though they don't have as many judges."

Beach agrees. "There's just nothing you can point to and say, `If the system were better, it would be this or that,' " he said. He recently completed cases in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties that were filed in 1995. "It's hard to get civil cases tried. It just is," he said.

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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