The constitution guarantees us the right to a trial before a jury of our peers. That right is commonly thought to apply to criminal matters and surely does, but many are not aware that it also applies to civil trials, such as personal injury cases. In fact, the constitution provides an explicit right to a jury in civil actions.
That right can and often is abridged by obstacles. For example, parties can and often do contract away the right to a jury, and in certain cases, such as equity cases where there may be no money at stake, a right to a jury may not exist. But for the large majority of personal injury victims, the right to a jury exists, and is regularly exercised.
Striking Jurors Before Trial
Of course, the ability of a jury system to properly function depends on its neutrality and fairness. We are entitled to a jury of our peers, but not of our exact peers, or exact demographics. And both parties have a right to strike jurors for and even without any cause.
In most cases, the weeding out of jurors will occur before a trial, in what is known as voir dire. This is where the attorneys will ask a series of questions to potential jurors to see if they have any background, life experiences, or history that may make them biased towards one party or another.
Someone who may own 10 businesses may not be an ideal juror for a victim who is suing a business for failure to maintain a safe floor. Someone whose mother was severely injured in a car accident may not be an ideal juror for a defendant being sued for causing a car accident.
Questioning Jurors After Trial
Despite the wide latitude to question, carefully select and exclude jurors before trial, the ability to point out prejudices or biases they may have had after the trial is a bit more limited.
This is because the legal system wants jurors to be able to deliberate and talk amongst themselves freely and openly without risk that they will be questioned about what they said later on. The ability of jurors to have deliberations free from scrutiny or criticism allows them to make decisions more honestly and based only on the evidence presented.
In order to preserve the integrity of the jury system, parties do not have an absolute right to question jurors on how they voted or why they voted. In many cases, parties on both sides may have no idea which juror voted which way, or why any juror voted how they did. Generally, there is no right to that information. The fact that you may think a juror was not paying attention, or rolling his or her eyes, does not make a difference.
In many cases, a party may accidentally learn or have reason to believe, that a juror may have acted improperly in the course of deliberations, or that the juror may have improperly ruled based on evidence that was not presented at the trial. The most common occurrence is when a party learns that a jury was dishonest in answering questions during the pre-trial voir dire. If that party lost the case, they may want to question the juror, to try to argue that they did not get a fair trial.
Right to Question is Limited
Generally, a victim or a defendant in an injury trial can question a juror post-trial, where there is an indication that the juror omitted or lied about information that prevents an attorney from making an informed decision about whether to keep the juror or not.
In other words, if the omission or misrepresentation was disclosed when it should have been by the juror, and the attorney would have stricken the juror from the juror pool based on that information, there is a basis to question the juror and potentially overturn any verdict rendered by the jury.
In many cases, new trials have been ordered when jurors concealed information about past lawsuits they had been a party to. In some cases, parties learned that jurors had consulted outside sources in rendering their decision, such as newspapers, the internet, or even family members. Many jurors, even innocently (although against the court’s plain instructions) may conduct their own online “research” into matters presented during a case. Where there is evidence of this, the juror can be questioned to see if a new trial is needed.
Omitting the fact that a juror knows or has a relationship with one of the parties, is also grounds for questioning the witness.
Racial or Religious Bias
And of course, any statements that imply any racial or religious bias will be grounds for questioning of a witness and for a new trial.
The U.S. Supreme Court in fact just ruled on this very issue, in a criminal trial in which a defendant who was Mexican was convicted of a crime after a juror stated that he overheard another juror making derogatory statements about Mexicans.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of the privacy of jury deliberations, and even cited to cases where verdicts were upheld where jurors were drunk or dishonest. But the Court said that the importance of keeping courts race-neutral was more vital to the protection of a legitimate jury system. As such, comments by jurors showing bias based on race or nationality that influenced the juror’s decision-making process will be sufficient to overturn a verdict.
Make sure your rights to a fair trial and a neutral jury are protected if you are injured in an accident and your case goes to trial. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss representation for your injuries.