Monday, June 13, 2016

Can the trial court order the discharged jury back to the courtroom?

This Supreme Court case asks the question: what does a trial judge do when the case is over and the jury is on its way out the courthouse and the judge realizes something is wrong with the verdict? Do you call the jury back for additional deliberations? Is the jury allowed to head out the door, never to be seen or heard from again? If so, does the judge declare a mistrial and order a new trial?

The case is Dietz v. Bouldon, decided by the Supreme Court on June 9. This was a personal injury case that went to trial in Montana. The defendant admitted liability and said he was responsible for the $10,136 in medical expenses. The jury had to decide of the defendant had to pay out any other damages. But the jury returned a verdict of $0.00 for the plaintiff. The judge then thanked the jury for its services and told them they were discharged. Moments later, however, the judge realized the jury had blown it. It could not award no money if the defendant had stipulated to pay the $10,136 in medical costs. So the jurors were intercepted as they were leaving the building and ordered to continue deliberating, which they did, awarding plaintiff $15,000 in damages. The defendant appeals, arguing that the jury cannot bring the jury back after they are discharged.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have provisions for nearly every conceivable procedural event that can happen in a lawsuit. But it says nothing about what to do when the jury is discharged and someone realizes they are not finished with their service because something went wrong with the verdict. So the Supreme Court has to apply old fashioned horse-sense in this case. It decides by 6-2 vote that the judge in this case properly exercised his discretion in bringing the jury back. Nothing in the rules prevented the judge from doing this, and the courts have inherent authority to ensure that justice is done. In order to bring the jury back after discharge, the court has to ensure that none of the parties are prejudiced by this maneuver, that is, that the jury was not exposed to any information in the courthouse hallways (such as passing conversations about the case or text messages or the losing party screaming about the unfair verdict in the hallway) that might further affect its view of the case. If the judge is satisfied that the jurors did not see or hear anything about the case and the jurors are brought back to the courtroom quickly. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor says:

In this case, the Supreme Court says the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in returning the jury to the trial. "Only one juror may have left the courthouse, apparently to retrieve a hotel receipt. The jurors did not speak to any person about the case after discharge. There is no indication in the record that this run-of-the-mill civil case—where the parties agreed that the defendant was liable and disputed damages only—generated any kind of emotional reaction or electronic exchanges or searches that could have tainted the jury. There was no apparent potential for prejudice by recalling the jury here."

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