I Thought That Juror Looked Familiar!

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

Jury (pd)What happens if you are a party in a lawsuit and you recognize one of the jurors as someone who not only knows you, but probably does not like you and may be looking for revenge? According to the Appellate Division in Rumbas v. Sony Electronics, Inc., at the very least, you bring it up before the jury returns its verdict.

In Rumbas, plaintiff claimed that a television defendant manufactured was defective and caused a fire that damaged plaintiff’s condominium unit and three other units. At the start of jury selection, the judge explained the nature of the case to the potential jurors. He then sat the first eight jurors in the jury box and explained the jury selection process. Specifically, he explained that he would be asking a series of 28 questions, each of which was “designed to elicit a negative response.” As jurors in the box were excused, they would be replaced by jurors from the panel, but the judge would not repeat the 28 questions. Instead, he would simply ask the replacement juror if his or her answer to any of them would be anything other than “no.”  Therefore, the judge stressed that it was important for all jurors, not just those in the jury box at the time, to pay attention to the questions.

Early on in the selection process, while the original eight jurors were seated in the jury box, the judge asked the attorneys to introduce their clients. Plaintiff was not in the courtroom at the time. Apparently, he had to go to the pharmacy, but his attorney indicated that he would be returning soon. The judge then read a list of potential witnesses and asked if any of the jurors knew any of them. None did. During this questioning, plaintiff returned to court, at which time he was introduced to the jurors. The judge asked if any of them knew plaintiff, but none did.

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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.

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

Reminder to Judges: No talking to jurors during deliberations

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

Jury (pd)
All lawyers know, or should know, that you are not allowed to have ex parte communications with a judge. A similar prohibition applies to judges, who are prohibited from having ex parte communications with jurors after the jury is empaneled. The unforgiving nature of this prohibition was at the forefront of Weber v. Patel, a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision.

Weber was a personal injury case. After hearing the evidence, the jury deliberated for approximately 90 minutes before purporting to return a 4-2 defense verdict. The judge responded: "Not a valid verdict. Five to one or six to zero. You've got to go back." The jury deliberated for a few more hours that day but went home without reaching a verdict. They returned the next morning at which point the judge had an ex parte conversation with them. According to the judge, one of the jurors asked the judge what would happen if they remained deadlocked. The judge responded that he would "worry about that in three days."

The judge told counsel about this conversation after it happened, but then confided that he would not really let the jury deliberate for three more days. Instead, he indicated that if the jury did not reach a verdict by the end of that day, he would likely find the jury "hung" and declare a mistrial. A little more than one hour after the judge spoke with the jurors, however, they returned a unanimous defense verdict.

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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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