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Georgia Court Orders New Trial Over Improperly Screened Jury

In any type of Georgia civil case, such as a personal injury lawsuit, the parties are entitled to have their dispute heard by an “impartial” jury. Among other things, this means that none of the jurors are related to any of the parties to the case. In car accident lawsuits, this also includes any insurance companies that may be liable for a judgment.

Mordecai v. Cain

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently granted a plaintiff in a car accident case a new trial after determining the trial judge failed to properly screen the jury for potential bias. The underlying lawsuit arose from a car accident. The plaintiff alleged the defendant was “driving on the wrong side of the road” and collided with her vehicle, seriously injuring her. Because the defendant lacked sufficient insurance, the plaintiff served her uninsured motorist carrier, which “elected to try this case in the name of the individual defendant,” according to court records.

In Georgia, the typical procedure for empaneling a jury involves bringing a group of prospective jurors into the courtroom. The attorneys for both sides are then permitted to question the jurors before a final panel is selected. A dispute arose in this case as to whether the attorneys should have been allowed to ask the jurors about their potential ties to the uninsured motorist carrier, which would be on the book for any judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.

The judge informed the attorneys for both sides that a court official had previously asked a group of 27 prospective jurors whether they were “officer, employee, stockholder, agent, director, or policyholder” of the uninsured motorist carrier. These prospective jurors were then brought into the courtroom for questioning by the attorneys. The plaintiff’s attorney wanted to directly question or the jurors as to their potential ties to the insurance company, but the judge denied that request on the grounds that the court administrator had already “qualified” the jurors on this point.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff that the trial judge’s actions were improper. The plaintiff had the right to qualify potential jurors in open court, the Court of Appeals said in an August 15 opinion. It was not enough for a court administrator to “pre-qualify” jurors before they were brought into the courtroom. While such pre-qualification may be acceptable if all parties consent, where, as here, a party expressly asks the trial judge to personally screen jurors for potential bias, the court’s discretion to refuse such a request is “limited,” according to the Court of Appeals.

The appeals court noted the trial judge’s actions here were particularly “nonsensical,” given that he asked the court administrator—in the middle of the trial—to affirm that the jurors were properly screened for bias with respect to the insurance company. The appeals court said the judge had already “declared all 27 prospective jurors qualified” after denying the plaintiff’s pre-trial request. Accordingly, the appeals court said the plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial with a properly qualified jury.