When evidence emerges that jurors lied about their involvement in prior litigation, a court must conduct an evidentiary hearing to investigate whether juror bias requires a new trial. In Torres v. First Transit, Inc., the defendant discovered, after losing at trial, that two jurors untruthfully failed to disclose that they had previously been defendants in multiple debt-collection lawsuits, and on that basis sought an evidentiary hearing to assess whether the jurors harbored biases against corporate entities.
The district court denied the motion, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a court “must” hold an evidentiary hearing when presented with “incontrovertible” evidence of juror dishonesty. ABA Section of Litigation leaders view the decision as sound, but caution that requiring an evidentiary hearing for juror dishonesty on any subject, regardless of materiality, could invite post-trial challenges and upset the finality of verdicts.
Jurors’ Mistruth Leads to Hearing
Two plaintiffs sued a transportation company for negligence after a bus owned by the company struck their vehicle and injured them severely. The defendant company stipulated to liability, and the jury returned a verdict of $7.4 million in the damages-only trial.
After trial, the defendant learned that two members of the jury had lied during pretrial screening when asked about their prior experiences in civil lawsuits. Although both jurors had stated that they had not “ever been a party to lawsuit,” one juror had been sued in eight debt-collection cases, and the other, five. The defendant moved for a new trial, arguing that the jurors could not be impartial in a “David and Goliath” case involving individuals against a company. Alternatively, the defendant requested an evidentiary hearing to examine the jurors about whether their prior experiences had rendered them biased.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida denied the motion. According to the district court, even if the jurors had told the truth about their prior lawsuits, the mere fact of those lawsuits would not suffice to challenge them for cause, and thus taking evidence on the issue was unnecessary. The district court further observed that there was “little in common” between the jurors’ prior debt-collection lawsuits and the plaintiffs’ personal injury case, and thus there was no reason to think that the jurors’ prior experiences would bias them against a corporate defendant in the present circumstances.
The defendant appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit reversed. Although noting that “[t]here is no per se rule that requires a district court to investigate all claims of juror misconduct,” the court of appeals nevertheless held that the district court had abused its discretion by failing to hold an evidentiary hearing given the “clear, strong, substantial and incontrovertible evidence” that the jurors had lied. As the court of appeals observed, “without an evidentiary hearing to dig beneath ‘the surface,’ the District Court simply could not know the jurors’ motives for failing to disclose their litigation histories.” Thus, the court of appeals held, when a party moving for a new trial “makes a prima facie showing that [a] juror may not have been impartial,” a district court “must” hold a hearing to investigate juror misconduct before ruling on the new trial motion.
Parties Must Have the Opportunity to Investigate Juror Misconduct
Section of Litigation leaders observe that a key basis for the Eleventh Circuit’s decision was the defendant’s lack of opportunity to explore the issue of bias. “The important part was that the defense lawyers never had an opportunity to question the jurors and make the case for bias,” observes Kenneth M. Klemm, cochair of the Section’s Trial Evidence Committee.
“It’s something of a jump simply to assume that the jurors’ prior experiences would not leave them biased, and allowing the defense lawyers to examine the jurors could have resulted in a very different perception by the trial court,” notes Klemm.
Joshua F. Kahn, cochair of the Section’s Mass Torts Litigation Subcommittee, concurs. “The fact that the jurors answered the questions incorrectly doesn’t necessarily mean that they were not impartial. But that’s exactly what needs to be explored. Without an evidentiary hearing, the defendant’s hands were basically tied in its ability to make the case for a new trial,” adds Kahn.
No Materiality Requirement for Juror Dishonesty
Section leaders also noted, however, that in requiring trial courts to investigate juror dishonesty, the Eleventh Circuit did not expressly limit its holding to misrepresentations on any particular subject. “There’s something fundamentally unsettling about a juror lying,” opines Blanca Fromm Young, cochair of the Section’s Trial Practice Committee, “but it’s kind of surprising that the Eleventh Circuit’s standard didn’t include a materiality requirement as to the juror’s false statement.” Without a materiality standard, Young continues, “lawyers who don’t like the verdict are going to go out of their way to find evidence that jurors may have lied. That’s a tactic that losing parties will now have.” Young still counsels caution, however, noting that “the fact that juror dishonesty must be taken seriously doesn’t mean there will be a new trial in every case.”
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