April 13, 2021

The Florida Third District Court of Appeal (“Florida Appellate Court”), in its opinion filed on March 24, 2021, upheld a Florida medical malpractice verdict in favor of the plaintiff, finding no error with the trial court’s refusal to permit the exercise of a defense peremptory challenge of an African-American potential juror.

The Underlying Facts

On January 28, 2014, Arleisha Hayes was admitted to Hialeah Hospital for respiratory failure and acute exacerbation of bronchial asthma. Over the course of several days, Ms. Hayes’s medical condition deteriorated, eventually reaching a critical point requiring a rapid response by hospital staff. On February 7, 2014, Hialeah Hospital’s house physician evaluated Ms. Hayes, ultimately deciding not to recommend further intervention. Despite the emergent response, Ms. Hayes died. The Estate sued Hialeah Hospital for negligence, alleging that its failure to properly assess and treat the decedent’s later-discovered pneumonia caused or contributed to her death. The Florida medical malpractice jury found in favor of the plaintiff, and the defendant appealed based, in part,  on the trial court’s refusal to permit the exercise of a defense peremptory challenge of an African-American potential juror.

Defense’s Preemptory Challenges

The defense attorney proffered the race-neutral explanation that he sought to strike the third juror due to his training and experience in the medical field as a licensed practical nurse. The trial court found that the defense attorney’s race-neutral explanation was not genuine due to an impermissible pattern of seeking to excuse potential jurors based on race.

The trial court’s focus during a Melbourne challenge (Melbourne v. State established the guidelines for a trial court’s evaluation of whether an impermissible race-based motive underlies a party’s peremptory challenge) is not the reasonableness of the asserted nonracial motive but rather the genuineness of the motive, a finding which turns primarily on an assessment of credibility.

The Florida Appellate Court stated that it reviews the trial court’s assessment of credibility under a clearly-erroneous standard of review. While it is well established that a juror’s occupation can be the foundation of a proper peremptory challenge, in this case “the record demonstrates that Appellant’s counsel exercised three peremptory challenges in a row on members of a race-protected class matching the decedent’s identification. Additionally, the trial court found the proffered reasons for two of three such challenges pretextual. Accordingly, there is sufficient record evidence to support the trial court’s credibility assessments such that they may not be disturbed under the clearly erroneous standard … A trial court’s finding of pretext premised on a pattern will survive review under an abuse of discretion standard where, as here, the “transcript demonstrates a systematic use of [peremptory challenges], followed by what seem to be quickly-contrived excuses for the strikes, in a manner calculated to exclude African Americans from serving on the jury” … As such, we find that the trial court properly exercised its discretion in sustaining a Melbourne challenge based on an impermissible pattern of striking potential jurors based on race.”

The Florida Appellate Court therefore affirmed the judgment entered by the trial court.

Source Hialeah Hospital, Inc. v. Joshua Misius Hayes-Boursiquot, No. 3D20-0050.

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