On Thursday in Dietz v. Bouldin, the Supreme Court ruled that federal district courts can recall jurors after identifying errors in deliberations.
The decision involved the trial of a car wreck case in Florida. The defendant admitted liability and stipulated $10,136 in damages for plaintiff’s medical expenses. During deliberations, the jury sent out a note asking whether plaintiff’s medical expenses had been paid and, if so, by whom. As is typical in that situation, the judge gave a non-response that the information was not relevant to the verdict. The jury then returned a plaintiff verdict for $0.
The judge discharged the jury. Then, the judge realized that the verdict had to be for over $10,136. Over plaintiff’s objection, the judge recalled the jurors, all but one of whom were still in the courthouse. After questioning the jurors and determining that none had discussed the case with anyone, the judge gave clarifying instructions and ordered the jury to resume deliberations. The jury then returned a plaintiff verdict for $15,000.
The plaintiff appealed and argued for a new trial. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.
In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that it was within the trial court’s inherent power to recall the jury. But the court should be careful when exercising the power and do so only in civil cases after determining that the jury was not tainted after discharge. The judge should question the jurors about whether they discussed the case with anyone, accessed their smartphones or the internet or were impacted by the parties’ reaction to the verdict.
Justices Thomas dissented with an opinion joined by Justice Kennedy. The dissent argued that the better rule is the common law bright line rule that once discharged, the judge cannot recall a jury. The dissent states:
All rules have their drawbacks. The common-law rule, on occasion, may unnecessarily force a district court to redo a trial for a minor substantive mistake in the verdict. But the majority’s multifactor test will only create more confusion. It would be much simpler to instruct the district courts, when they find a mistake in the verdict after the jury is dismissed, to hold a new trial.
New rule: you can’t put a skunk back in the box–unless it’s a civil case. Then it’s ok.
In theory, I don’t mind a trial judge having a bit of discretion in this area. But come on. Bringing back a jury that rendered a $0 verdict when the defendant stipulated $10,136 in legitimate medical expenses? Everyone knew the plaintiff was going to get screwed. This was a bad jury. And the judge was more interested in getting it over than getting it right.
This case goes in my Improving the Jury System category. It’s another example of a case where the jury system didn’t work well. I don’t blame jurors for this. I blame a legal system that pretends like the jury system is perfect and never tries to improve it. You know what I bet they didn’t tell the jury in plain English? That the verdict must be for at least $10,136.
$15,000 was probably just enough to stick. I would like to see what the judge would have done if the jury had come back with $10,136.01.
It’s sad–but completely unsurprising–that the Supreme Court didn’t seem to notice how screwed up this was.