Our system of justice depends on our jury system; it is written into our constitution and fundamental to our democracy. A fair trial by a jury requires that those jurors remain fair, impartial, and without bias as much as possible. That is why, before an injury trial, extensive questioning of potential jurors is conducted by the attorneys on both sides. Humans are by nature fallible, and sometimes the ability to be neutral can be compromised. That is why courts put requirements on jurors who are selected to serve in a trial.
Requirements on Jurors
Of course, a fundamental requirement is that jurors answer the questions asked of them completely and honestly during the selection process.
After that, jurors are instructed to avoid reading or learning anything about the case other than what they hear during the trial. Unless the case has significant media coverage, this is usually an easy requirement to follow.
Jurors are also restricted from discussing any part of the case in any way or manner, with anybody else, even the closest of family members. In high profile cases, this is why jurors are often sequestered—to separate them from media requests, and the pressure that others would put on them to discuss the case.
Juror Breaks the Rules
Sometimes, jurors do not follow the rules, as was the situation in a recent injury case. The case involved a juror who was questioned before trial, and who told the court that he had not been involved in any other accidents, and that no close family members had either.
Once selected, he, along with the other jurors, were instructed by the court not to discuss the case at all. The judge even specifically instructed the jurors avoid discussing the case using any social media outlets.
At trial, the jury awarded the victim a very small sum—essentially, a loss for the victim. After the trial, the victim’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial, citing newly discovered evidence regarding the juror. Specifically, the attorneys presented to the court a series of tweets that the juror had made during the trial.
The juror admitted that he had tweeted that he “half assed” his answers during pre-trial jury questioning, that he hated being a juror, and that “everybody is money hungry.” Based on this evidence the court allowed the victim’s attorneys to interview the juror. The juror not only admitted publishing the tweets, but also disclosed that he and a family member had recently been involved in their own car accident, a fact he did not disclose in the pre trial questioning.
The juror did say that he had not discussed the case with anybody, told nobody about his views on the actual case, and did not tweet during the proceedings themselves. He also said that he misunderstood the previous questions about whether he had been in a prior accident.
The trial court ultimately allowed the verdict to stand, essentially saying that the juror’s misconduct was not sufficient to overturn the verdict and order a new trial. The victim’s attorney appealed.
Appellate Court Looks at Prejudice
The attorney argued that the tweets showed that the juror had a bias towards the victim, and that the juror completely ignored the Court’s instructions.
But the law on jurors who ignore court instructions is more difficult than it may seem. Many cases have said that not every violation of the Court’s instructions, will allow a party to overturn a verdict and get a new trial. Rather, any actions taken by a jury must be evaluated to see if they demonstrate a prejudice towards a party.
Simple innocuous statements or statements that do not express an opinion may not be enough to show that a juror was biased enough to poison the proceedings. In fact, in many cases, when jurors have tweeted or put on Facebook the simple fact that they are on or were selected for a jury, courts have found that there was no prejudice to the party seeking a new trial.
The appellate court noted that no other jurors apparently saw the juror’s tweets. Furthermore, the court noted that the juror discussed no facts presented in the case itself. Additionally, the trial court, after extensive questioning of the juror, did not find that he willingly violated the Court’s orders, nor that he was prejudiced, and the appellate court was hesitant to second guess the trial court on such a subjective finding.
Saying that people were “money hungry” may show prejudice against the Plaintiff. However, the Court cited to the fact that the juror had made similar statements before he was selected, and thus, the parties had notice of the jurors’ feelings, and had the opportunity to strike him as a juror before the trial, but opted not to.
Although the issue of the juror’s prior accident was concerning, there was not enough information asked of the juror to determine whether the accident he was involved in was sufficiently similar to the one involved in the case he was hearing as a juror. The juror could have been involved in any kind of accident, of varying severity, and the court could not assume that the accident he was in prejudiced him towards the accident in the case.
The Court thus allowed the verdict to stand, denying the victim’s motion for a new trial, despite the actions of the juror.
If you are in an accident, make sure your attorneys understand the ins and outs of trying personal injury cases, and the rules that jurors must follow. Contact the attorneys at Brill & Rinaldi for a free consultation to discuss your case.