In any civil trial, both sides have the right to have their case heard by an impartial jury. As you may know, before any trial begins, the attorneys for both sides have an opportunity to question potential jurors–a process known as voir dire–and challenge any juror whose impartiality may be reasonably questioned.
What happens if the jurors lie or omit potentially critical information regarding their background? Does their participation in the final verdict taint the outcome? Can the losing side ask for a new trial based on the assumption they would have challenged the juror for cause had they known the whole truth?
Torres v. First Transit, Inc.
The Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed these questions when reviewing a verdict in a personal injury lawsuit from Florida, Torres v. First Transit, Inc. This case arose from a September 2017 bus accident in Boca Raton. The plaintiffs were riding in a vehicle that was struck by a bus owned by the defendant. The plaintiffs subsequently sued the defendant in Miami federal court, alleging their driver’s negligence caused the accident.
The defense conceded liability but contested the amount of damages. The case was tried before a jury, which ultimately awarded the two plaintiffs over $7 million in combined damages.
After the trial ended, the defendant said it learned about the “litigation histories” of two of the jurors who participated in the verdict. One juror, identified as Y.C., had previously “been a defendant in eight civil litigation matters,” while a second juror, identified as E.S., had been “involved in five civil litigation matters.” During the juror-screening process, however, neither juror disclosed this litigation history on a written questionnaire provided by the court. During voir dire, both Y.C. and E.S. replied “no” when asked if they had ever been a party to a lawsuit.
Based on this, the defendant argued that it was entitled to a new trial, as the failure of Y.C. and E.S. to disclose their litigation histories constituted an “affirmative concealment” of information that suggested a “lack of impartiality.” The trial judge, however, denied the defense’s motion without even taking the time to conduct an evidentiary hearing.
The 11th Circuit said that was a mistake. In a situation like this one, the trial judge was required to “hold an evidentiary hearing prior to ruling on the motion for a new trial in order to adequately investigate the alleged juror misconduct.” Instead, the judge simply assumed that the two jurors had no reason to intentionally withhold the information about their respective litigation histories and thus did not attempt to deceive the court. Without a full hearing, the 11th Circuit pointed out it was impossible for the judge to “know the jurors’ motives” for omitting these facts.
The appellate court also instructed the trial judge to conduct “in-depth questioning” of both jurors to ascertain not only their prior civil lawsuits, but also whether or not either person “harbored any biases—including those against the legal system itself—that would cast doubt on their fundamental ability to properly weigh the evidence and would ultimately render them partial.”