Not An Open-Ended Issue: Judge’s Failure To Ask Open-Ended Questions During Voir Dire Is Reversible Error.

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

 Jury (pd)
In 2006 and 2007, the Administrative Office of the Courts issued directives addressing jury voir dires. The directives require, among other things, that trial judges ask jurors at least three open-ended questions that are designed to elicit a narrative response to which "appropriate follow up questions [can] be asked." These questions must be "posed verbally to each juror to  elicit a verbal response." The purpose of this requirement is to "ensure that jurors verbalize their answers so the court, attorneys and litigants can better assess the jurors' attitudes and ascertain any bias or prejudice, not evident from a yes or no response, that might interfere with the ability of that juror to be impartial." The importance of the Administrative Office's directives was highlighted in two recent decision from the Appellate Division, both of which overturned verdicts rendered by jurors who were not asked at least three open-ended questions during voir dire.

In Heredia v. Piccininni, plaintiff sued after being injured in an automobile accident. Before trial, defendant stipulated liability, thus the only issue for the jury was damages. In advance of jury selection, Plaintiff submitted the following open-ended questions to be asked during voir dire:

  1. What are your feelings regarding the proposition that accidents resulting in serious damage to a vehicle may result in no bodily injuries and accidents resulting in little damage to a vehicle may result in serious bodily injuries?
  1. Describe by way of an example an experience in your life that illustrates your ability to be fair and open-minded in this case.
  1. Who are the two people that you least admire and why?
  1. What would you do about the homeless situation?
  1. What would you do about those without medical insurance?

The court did not include any of plaintiff's proposed questions in the list of questions used during voir dire. Instead, the trial judge asked each juror "multiple biographical questions required by the [Administrative Office]," including how they received their news, what their favorite television shows were, what bumper stickers they had on their cars, and how they spent their time. None of these were open-ended questions. Plaintiff's counsel used two of her six peremptory challenges during jury selection and, at the end of the process, advised the court that the jury was satisfactory.

After trial, the jury returned a verdict of no cause on plaintiff's non-economic losses (e.g., pain and suffering damages) but awarded plaintiff her economic damages, representing the full value of her outstanding medical bills. Plaintiff appealed, arguing, among other things, that the trial judge failed to ask any open-ended questions during voir dire.

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Arbitration Award Stands Even Though One Of The Arbitrators Was Later Convicted Of Crime

  by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Divorce decree (pd)Arbitration awards are, by design, difficult to vacate. But what happens when one of the arbitrators who entered the award is later convicted of a crime related, at least to some extent, to an issue in the arbitration. In Litton v. Litton, the Appellate Division addressed this interesting but (hopefully) uncommon occurrence.

In Litton, plaintiff and defendant were married in 1982 and had one child. In 2008, the Family Part entered a judgment of divorce and ordered them to share joint custody of their son. They were also directed to proceed to arbitration before a rabbinical panel, or Beth Din, which they did. The panel, which was comprised of three rabbis, entered an award requiring the husband to pay the wife $5,000 per month until he gave her a Get. (As the Appellate Division explained, a Get is a "written document a husband must obtain and deliver to his wife when entering into a divorce. Without a Get, a wife cannot remarry under Jewish law.") Once the wife received the Get, the husband's monthly support obligation would be reduced to $3,500. The husband was also ordered to pay $20,0250 in arrears, $100,000 in the wife's legal fees, and a fine of $250,000 for "his refusal to disclose information about the couple's joint funds."

Several months later, the wife moved to enforce the award and, apparently, have the husband jailed for not complying with it. The Family Part denied the request and found that the husband was not capable of complying with the support order.

Four years later, the Family Part reduced the husband's support obligation from $5,000 per month to $23 per week. Around the same time, in a "wholly unrelated matter," one of the arbitrators on the panel was charged with, and apparently later convicted  of, "criminal conspiracy to threaten and coerce Jewish husbands to give Gets to their wives."  The husband moved to vacate the arbitration award, arguing that, in light of these charges against one of the rabbis on the panel, "the award was the product of corruption." The trial court denied the motion, holding that there was no causal connection between the arbitration in 2008 and the charges against the rabbi five years later, and that there were two other rabbis on the panel who were not charged as part of the conspiracy. The husband appealed.

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Dismissal With Prejudice Too Harsh A Remedy For Expert’s Unavailability

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Gavel (pd)There is often tension between a court's need to effectively manage its docket and the overriding objective that a lawsuit be resolved on its merits and not because a party (or its counsel) misses a deadline. Courts establish deadlines. If they are ignored, can the court — as a sanction, and in the interest of managing its docket — dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice? According to the Appellate Division in a recent unpublished decision, Trezza v. Lambert-Wooley, the answer to this question is "no," unless the noncompliance was purposeful and no lesser remedy was available to the court. 

In Trezza,plaintiffs sued defendants for medical malpractice. Three years after the lawsuit was filed, the court set a peremptory trial date. This was rescheduled when the court did not reach the case on the trial date. The trial did not take place on the rescheduled date or a subsequent rescheduled date, both times because defendant's designated trial counsel was unavailable. Thereafter, the Presiding Judge issued a sua sponte order scheduling trial for approximately four months later and setting forth "specific and stringent terms as to the course and conduct of the case relative to trial." The order mandated that: (1) the trial date would not be adjourned to accommodate the parties' or counsels' personal or professional schedules; (2) counsel was required  to monitor the schedules of their parties, witnesses, and experts, and if one or more were not going to be available on the trial date, arrange for a de bene esse deposition ahead of trial; and (3) if designated trial counsel was not available on the trial date, alternate counsel would have to be found, whether or not from the same firm.

Five days before the scheduled trial date, plaintiff's counsel requested that the trial be carried for four days due to the unavailability of plaintiff's liability expert, which he only learned about a few days prior to the request. Defendants' counsel consented to the request. The judge assigned to the case considered the request but, in light of the Presiding Judge's order, determined that he did not have the authority to grant the adjournment. He sent the parties to the Presiding Judge, who denied the request and directed the parties to proceed to trial. "Predicated upon the terms of the order, the age of the case, and plaintiff's expert's unavailability, the judge [then] dismissed the complaint with prejudice." Plaintiffs appealed.

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Does a judge have to explain the “empty chair” to the jury when there was never anyone sitting there in the first place?

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Empty chairA recent trial court decision, Hernandez v. Chekenian, dealt with a minor, but significant, twist on a common scenario involving the so-called empty chair defense. This defense does not literally involve an empty chair. Rather it refers to the situation when defense counsel argues to a jury that someone else, someone not sitting at the defense table, is to blame for plaintiff's injuries. That party is usually, but not always, missing because they settled with the plaintiff.

The New Jersey model jury charges contain two settling co-defendant instructions. One is very short, and simply notifies the jury that a defendant settled and that "[t]he effect of that settlement on the parties still [t]here is of no concern to you at the present time and you should not speculate about that." The second is more detailed. It similarly notes that the jury should not "speculate as to the reasons why the plaintiff and defendant settled their dispute" and "should not be concerned about the amount, if any, that may have been paid to resolve the claim," but then instructs the jury to consider "whether or not the settling defendant was negligent and a proximate cause of the accident," and, if it does, to then "apportion fault in terms of percentages among/between the settling defendant(s) and the remaining defendant(s)." 

Hernandez involved a three-car, chain reaction crash. Plaintiff was the passenger in the middle car. He sued the driver and owner of the first car, the driver and owner of the middle car (in which plaintiff was a passenger), and the driver of the third car. Prior to trial, plaintiff dismissed the claims against the driver and owner of the first car and the claims against the owner of the second car. He then settled the claims against the driver of the middle car. That left only the claims against the driver of the third car for trial. Counsel for the one remaining defendant requested that the court give the jury a settling co-defendant charge.  

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Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Jury (pd)It is not often that a case that starts in the Special Civil Part — New Jersey's small-claims court — ends up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. But this is exactly what happened in Williams v. American Auto Logistics. It could not have been cost effective for the plaintiff to see this case through two separate bench trials, two separate appeals to the Appellate Division, and finally an appeal to the Supreme Court. But the issue in the case was so important that, notwithstanding the costs, the effort was likely worthwhile.

In Williams, plaintiff had his car shipped from Alaska to New Jersey by defendant. After he picked up the car, he discovered water damage in the trunk. Plaintiff sued in the Special Civil Part after efforts to amicably resolve the dispute failed. Plaintiff did not demand a jury trial in his complaint, but defendant did in its answer. At the pretrial conference, the trial court referred the parties to mediation, which was unsuccessful. Upon returning from mediation, defendant waived its jury demand. Plaintiff objected, but the trial court granted defendant's request. In support of its decision, the trial court noted that plaintiff had violated Rule 4:25-7 by failing to make the requisite pretrial submissions. (Among other things, Rule 4:25-7 requires parties to submit proposed voir dire questions, jury instructions, and jury verdict forms.) The trial court held that it could deny plaintiff's request for a jury trial as a sanction for this failure. Therefore, the case proceeded to a bench trial, where the trial court found no merit to plaintiff's claims.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded. It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand. It further explained that "a trial judge may impose sanctions, including striking the jury demand, on a party that fails to submit the requisite pretrial information," but that the trial court in Williams erred by "allowing a single party to unilaterally waive the jury demand."

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