June 28, 2020

The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division (“New Jersey Appellate Court”), in its opinion dated March 2, 2020, upheld the denial of a new trial for the New Jersey medical malpractice plaintiffs based on the alleged bias of a juror who had previously been to the defendant’s house five-to-eight years earlier to prepare a bid for landscaping work.

At the end of the New Jersey medical malpractice trial, alternate juror #8 approached the plaintiffs in the parking lot and told them that juror #3 mentioned to the rest of the jurors after the verdict that he previously prepared a bid for landscape work at the defendant’s home. After learning this information, the judge required both jurors return to the courtroom, questioning them on the record about what happened.

Juror #3 testified that he worked for a landscaping company and received referrals from a landscape architect. After being selected to serve on the jury, juror #3 told the landscape architect that he would be “out of commission workwise” because of the case. The landscape architect asked about the type of case, and juror #3 said some kind of “stomach thing.” The landscape architect then left for vacation, and the trial started.

When the landscape architect returned from his vacation, he talked to juror #3, who realized for the first time he had been to the defendant’s house “five, six, seven, eight years ago,” at the request of the landscape architect, regarding a possible job. Although juror #3 went to the defendant’s house at that time, he said he never met or talked to the defendant, and that his company never got the job. Juror #3 said that he told the jurors—after they returned the verdict—that he had been to the defendant’s house “a number of years ago,” but that he “did not know prior to the [start of] trial that [he] had been there.” Juror #3 explained that at the end of trial, his landscape architect told him “we had been to [defendant’s] house[.]” Up to that point, and not “until well into the trial,” or “three weeks into the trial, two-and-a-half weeks into the trial,” juror #3 did not know he had been there. When he learned that information, he said to himself “holy moly . . . I was there.” But juror #3 said he never met the defendant or talked to him or his wife. Juror #3 said that when he learned that he had been to the defendant’s house, he was “absolutely shocked,” and that he decided he “had better keep [his] mouth shut.”

The trial judge found there was absolutely no prejudice to the plaintiffs “on account of [j]uror #3’s supposed acquaintance with [d]efendant.” The judge further found that juror #3, who was credible, represented during voir dire that he could be fair and impartial during trial. The judge concluded there was no proof of bias whatsoever. If anything, not getting the landscaping job would have been less favorable to the defendant, not the plaintiffs.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that they are entitled to a new trial because juror #3’s failure to disclose this information deprived them of an impartial jury and unduly interfered with their ability to knowingly exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection.

New Trial Standard For Juror Misconduct

The New Jersey Appellate Court stated that it is well settled that the test for determining whether a new trial will be granted because of the misconduct of jurors or the intrusion of irregular influences is whether such matters could have a tendency to influence the jury in arriving at its verdict in a manner inconsistent with the legal proofs and the judge’s charge. If the irregular matter has that tendency on the face of it, a new trial should be granted without further inquiry as to its actual effect. The test is not whether the irregular matter actually influenced the result, but whether it had the capacity of doing so. The stringency of this rule is grounded upon the necessity of keeping the administration of justice pure and free from all suspicion of corrupting practices.

When there are allegations of jury misconduct, the trial judge must make a probing inquiry into the possible prejudice caused by any jury irregularity, relying on his or her own objective evaluation of the potential for prejudice rather than on the jurors’ subjective evaluation of their own impartiality. Tendency to influence the verdict–not probability or likelihood–is the standard for determining whether a new trial should be granted.

The New Jersey Appellate Court stated that a motion for a new trial may be granted on the basis that a juror omitted or falsified material information during voir dire that had the potential to be prejudicial, and if disclosed, would have given counsel a reasonable basis to exercise a peremptory challenge to exclude the juror. Nonetheless, the grant or denial of a motion for a new trial should not be disturbed unless the judge abused his or her discretion.

In the case it was deciding, the New Jersey Appellate Court held: “we reject plaintiffs’ assertion that they were effectively denied their right to a peremptory challenge as a result of juror #3’s failure to disclose at voir dire that he had previously been to defendant’s house. They also question juror #3’s credibility, who denied that he was aware of his previous business relationship with defendant, and contend he was trying to influence the outcome of the case. We have no reason to second guess the judge’s findings, and there is no evidence to suggest that juror #3 attempted to influence the outcome of the case. Moreover, a new trial is not warranted where a trial judge finds, at a post-verdict hearing, that the omission of the information during jury selection or trial was not potentially prejudicial to the party.”

Source Graziano v. Ibrahim, Docket No. A-3594-18T1.

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