CHARLESTON –- Judges on the state's Mass Litigation Panel have kept their promise to convert their business from paper files to computer screens.
Panel chairman Alan Moats inaugurated the electronic era on Dec. 8, entering an order and instantly serving it on all lawyers in litigation over heart medicine Digitek.
"Online clerk and judicial review of filed documents will improve court operations, while the online document depository will improve access to filed documents for everyone," Moats said.
He serves as circuit judge in Taylor and Barbour counties, but as panel chairman he handles Digitek suits on file in Kanawha County.
Jennifer Bundy, public information officer for the Supreme Court of Appeals, wrote that no circuit judge had ever taken action on a case pending in another county.
"The order was filed and served in a matter of minutes, instead of the days or weeks it can take using traditional methods," she wrote.
Moats promised "e-filing" to lawyers at a panel meeting in Beckley in October.
The system will operate through LexisNexis File & Serve.
LexisNexis spokesman Tobias Hartmann said e-filing improves efficiency and lowers costs while reducing consumption of paper and energy.
Federal courts converted to E-filing years ago. Among other advantages, e-filing permits research on nights and weekends.
On the day Moats made history, the Supreme Court of Appeals adopted a new Rule 15 to govern e-filing.
"For documents that have been e-filed, the electronic version of the document constitutes the official court record, and e-filed documents have the same force and effect as documents filed by traditional means," Rule 15 provides.
"E-filing and service shall not be used to initiate a civil action or to serve a new party with an amended complaint or a third party complaint," it states.
Lawyers must check their online inboxes for documents, the rule states.
"Courtesy e-mail notification of a filing shall not constitute service," it states.
Parties that can't use e-filing may seek a waiver to file paper documents.
"Such documents shall be uploaded and made available within the e-filing and service system by the circuit clerk in the circuit where the Mass Litigation subject to e-filing is pending," Rule 15 states.
Clerks must provide public access computer terminals.
The Mass Litigation Panel consolidates similar cases from many courts for pretrial proceedings.
Along with Digitek litigation, the panel handles thousands of asbestos suits and suits from a storm that caused flooding in southern counties in 2001.
The panel has e-filed about 40 asbestos suits that Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson has set for trial next year.
E-filing of flood suits will begin after plaintiff lawyers submit information sheets that the panel distributed at the meeting in Beckley.