The Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision on Feb. 2 impacting all trial lawyers in the state. It held that a Superior Court judge may set reasonable time limits on parties' presentation of their evidence at trial.

While this approach to trial time management is not new, and Judge William G. Young and others have employed it in Massachusetts federal court for years, those who have tried cases in state court know that trials in this venue often drag on longer than expected with little to no repercussions for inefficient counsel.

The SJC decision informs judges that they may place time limits on parties at trial in an effort to manage already full Superior Court dockets.

In Babaletos v. Demoulas Super Markets, Inc., et al., the personal representative of the plaintiff brought a wrongful death action against defendants Demoulas, Philip Morris USA Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., alleging that they produced and sold the cigarettes that led to her husband's death.

The plaintiff's claims included breach of warranty in design, negligence in design and marketing, fraud, civil conspiracy, and unfair and deceptive acts and practices in violation of G.L.c. 93A, §9.

The jury returned a verdict in the plaintiff's favor on four of the claims, and the trial judge ruled that the defendants were not liable on the Chapter 93A claim.

The plaintiff appealed the decision, arguing that the judge improperly prejudiced her by imposing time limits on her presentation of evidence in the case.

The SJC disagreed and held that the plaintiff could not show prejudice because while the trial judge had set time limits for each party, he had repeatedly offered to extend scheduled half days to full days if needed, and the plaintiff never requested the longer trial days.

The SJC also noted that the trial judge had granted the plaintiff's two requests for more time during the trial.

In the opinion's appendix, the SJC provided guidance to Superior Court judges on how to set time limits for trial.

Specifically, its clear message was that while judges should be flexible and informed in managing trial time, they may place responsibility on the parties to appropriately evaluate and reevaluate the time needed to present their case.

The SJC also made clear that parties will be expected to make "specific requests [for more time] and objections [to time limits]" when necessary during trial.

Following are a few tips for managing this new ruling in Superior Court so you don't risk losing valuable time needed to present your case.

  • Advocate for your time allocation

The SJC held that judges should give the parties an opportunity to be heard on the issue of time limits.

The court will focus on the (1) complexity of the case, and (2) the nature of the claims and defenses of the parties. For this reason, attorneys should be prepared to advise the judge regarding the key issues and the number of witnesses in the case, and to estimate thoughtfully how long it will take to present the evidence. That means evaluating which witnesses will introduce each key piece of documentary or testimonial evidence, and how long it will take to lay an appropriate foundation for each piece of evidence.

To stay within the time limits, counsel must be careful not to duplicate information or testimony. There is an emphasis on efficiency rather than volume of information.

Efficiency is a better practice regardless of time limits; juries tend to reward parties whose counsel presents the evidence in a clear, streamlined manner, and to resent duplication and the wasting of their time.

  • Be clear on how the time is counted

Counsel should take care to keep track of the time they spend on each witness to ensure that opposing counsel's cross or direct does not count toward their own client's allocation. They should clarify with the court at the beginning of trial how the clerk is keeping track of such time so there are no surprises.

The parties should also check with the clerk on how objections and side bars will be counted toward their time allocation.

Establish a practice at the end of each trial day of asking the clerk how much of each party's total time allocation has been used. To the extent that opposing counsel appears to be wasting time — particularly if they appear to be doing so intentionally to take time from their opponent — counsel should respectfully call such practices to the judge's attention to address it early.

  • Keep your own time each day

Once it is clear from the clerk what the ground rules are for time allocation at trial, counsel should track their own time each day and ask the court for updates on tracking to ensure they have a clear understanding of how much time remains in the case.

To the extent that counsel takes issue with the clerk's or court's calculation of the time, counsel should respectfully raise objections on the record about how the time has been counted so as to preserve their rights for appeal.

  • Speak up early if you think you need more time (but don't expect to get it)

The SJC advises judges to consider reasonable adjustments to time limits, but only if the party sufficiently explains why the time is needed and how the additional time would be used if granted.

In Babaletos, the judge seemed moved by the fact that the plaintiff failed to make specific requests for additional time during the trial. In particular, the plaintiff did not clearly articulate what key evidence for her case she could not present because of the time limits.

Therefore, if a party is running behind, it is important to articulate on the record exactly what evidence has been precluded by the time limit and object on the record if the request is not granted.

Time limits can be effective in focusing a case, but parties need to be prepared, plan ahead, communicate with the court, and preserve their objections.

Previously published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly on April 8.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.