March 31, 2017

First Circuit Denied New Trial Where Foreman Was Felon

John Austin

The First Circuit Court of Appeals denied plaintiffs’ request for a new trial where a juror had failed to notify the Court that he was a convicted felon, thereby disqualifying him for jury duty. In Faria v. Harleysville Worchester Ins. Co., Case No. 16-1060, plaintiffs lost a personal injury case against his insurance company. Following the verdict, counsel for plaintiffs discovered that the jury foreman was a convicted felon and was presently under probation.

In McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548, 556 (1984), the Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit, holding that a party is not entitled to a new trial unless the juror's failure to disclose denied the other side its right to an impartial jury. But in so ruling, the Court announced “a binary test” that the filer of a new-trial motion based on juror dishonesty must satisfy: (1) “a party must first demonstrate that a juror failed to answer honestly a material question on voir dire,” and (2) the party must “then further show that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause.” Id. at 556.

In this case, the First Circuit agreed with the district court that the foreman had not answered the voir dire questions dishonestly and was, instead, honestly mistaken. More importantly, the court held that the plaintiffs could not show a particular bias of the foreman and how that bias prejudiced the plaintiffs. Mere speculation is not enough. The First Circuit ends the opinion with some sage advice:

In closing, it is worth remembering the Supreme Court's cautionary note in McDonough. Litigants are not guaranteed a perfect trial, McDonough, 464 U.S. at 553 (noting that “[a litigant] is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one”), and we do not reverse for every error that arises, id. (“We have also come a long way from the time when all trial error was presumed prejudicial and reviewing courts were considered ‘citadels of technicality,”’ and “[t]he harmless error rules adopted by this Court and Congress embody the principle that courts should exercise judgment in preference to the automatic reversal for ‘error’ and ignore errors that do not affect the essential fairness of the trial.”).

John Austin

Principal at John Austin Law Firm in Raleigh, North Carolina.