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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2008

New system to send commercial cases to 2 Lucas Co. judges

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Lucas County is one of five counties in the state that will initiate a specialized commercial litigation docket system designed, in part, to make Ohio more business-friendly.

When the pilot program starts Jan. 2, all commercial litigation cases in the county will be funneled to only two Common Pleas judges - Gary Cook and Gene Zmuda - which will allow businesses to have cases decided more quickly and allow plaintiffs and defendants to expect more consistent decisions.

John VanNorman, policy and research counsel for the Ohio Supreme Court and its staff member assigned to the project, said the concept of a commercial litigation docket is already in place in other states. He said that Ohio's pilot program is a result of a task force formed to study the concept in other states.

To date, Lucas, Franklin, Hamilton, and Cuyahoga counties have agreed to participate. Montgomery County has also been asked. The project will run through July, 2012.

"I think the point is not just, are we handling these cases timely, but also do we have good decisions," Mr. VanNorman said. "There was some concern that commercial litigation could be increasingly complex and that it would be good to have judges familiar with the process.

"Hopefully when you do that, you improve the case law."

He added: "One of the goals of the project is to see if we're seeing less appeals, less cases being overturned, and less time for the cases to be decided."

A commercial litigation docket focuses on specific types of cases, including the forming or dissolution of a business entity, trade-secret and noncompete issues, and franchise and dealership relationships.

Issues such as labor disputes and lawsuits involving the government would not be accepted.

Judge Zmuda, who will attend training next month to participate in the pilot project, said that lawyers who practice commercial law have commented that the new system will hopefully mean cases wind through the court system more quickly.

"The biggest help they wanted was that these cases not be dragged out," he said.

Commercial cases will still be filed in the county clerk's office and assigned randomly to a judge. However, once the project starts, plaintiffs' attorneys will move to have cases reassigned to one of the two judges handling commercial litigation dockets, Judge Zmuda said.

In exchange, the judges will relinquish civil lawsuits that do not fall under the commercial docket requirements.

Specialized dockets have already appeared in juvenile criminal court and housing court in municipal courts, Judge Zmuda said.

Attorney Patrick Fischer of Keating, Muething, & Klekamp in Cincinnati is a co-chairman of the task force. He said that the goal of the project is three-fold: to improve consistency in rulings, to make improvements in the judicial system, and, most importantly, to strengthen Ohio's economy.

If other states have a system where companies can more easily navigate the courts, those states become more attractive to companies looking to build, he said.

Also, company attorneys always prefer knowing how a case may be decided - something that would be more likely to happen if fewer judges are deciding cases with similar facts.

Each decision from a commercial litigation judge, he added, will be available on the Supreme Court Web site so all judges and attorneys can view them.

"Businesses can have more confidence in decisions, and attorneys can advise their clients appropriately," he said, adding that companies, however small, will then be able to move ahead with business without being delayed by litigation.

"I believe that the chief justice and the Supreme Court took a path toward really helping jobs, the economy, and business in Ohio. It's unusual when the judiciary has an impact on jobs and the economy," Mr. Fischer said.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge John Bessey, task force co-chairman, said specializing the dockets does not mean other judges have not been handling cases appropriately and adequately. He said that the program just makes a more efficient system.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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