Discharged Juries Can Face Recall, Supremes Say

     (CN) – The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that judges can call a jury back to the courtroom after it’s delivered a verdict and been dismissed, so long as it is done within carefully prescribed limits.
     The 6-2 ruling by the court stems from an August 2009 motor vehicle accident in Montana.
     While driving through a Montana intersection, Hillary Bouldin collided with a vehicle being driven by Rocky Dietz.
     Dietz filed a negligence complaint in state court claiming that Bouldin’s carelessness had caused him to suffer several injuries, including one to his lower back.
     
The case was later moved to federal court.
     Before trial, Bouldin admitted he was at fault for the accident and conceded that Dietz had in fact been injured. The parties also agreed that these injuries had caused Dietz to incur $10,136 in medical expenses. The only dispute at trial was the amount of future damages Bouldin owed Dietz.
     Dietz presented evidence he would need regular physical therapy and pain injections in the wake of the accident; Bouldin countered by arguing Dietz had a long list of medical conditions prior to the crash, that only some of his medical expenses directly stemmed from the collision, and that Dietz had no intention of seeking the extensive treatment he claimed he needed.
     During deliberations, a juror sent a note to Magistrate Judge Richard Anderson, who was presiding over the case, asking whether Dietz’s $10,136 in medical expenses had been paid, and by whom. But Anderson said that information was not germane to the jury’s verdict.
     Immediately afterward, speaking to the parties’ counsel, he wondered aloud whether the jury in fact understood that it could not returned a verdict less than the slightly more than $10,000 that had been stipulated.
     “I can’t believe that would happen, but if this is what we’re heading toward, that would be grounds for a mistrial and I don’t want a mistrial,” he said, according to court documents. “Do you think they understand clearly … that their verdict cannot be less than that amount?”
     Based on assurances from Bouldin’s attorney, the judge took no further action. But when the jury returned with its verdict, the outcome of their deliberations was a shocker. They awarded Dietz no damages whatsoever.
     Anderson dismissed the jurors, but then realized the verdict was a legal impossibility, since the parties had already stipulated the damages would be at least $10,136.
     He immediately called the jurors back within moments, court documents say and told them their verdict violated the stipulation. After polling the jury to determine whether it had been exposed to prejudicial influence in the short time it had been dismissed, he ordered it to reconvene the following morning and issue a new verdict consistent with the stipulation.
     The jury again found for Dietz, and awarded him $15,000 in damages. Dietz appealed. The verdict and the court’s actions were affirmed by the majority of a Ninth Circuit panel.
     Dietz then filed a petition for a grant of certiorari, asking the high court to decide whether a court can re-empanel a jury, without prejudicing a case and violating the parties’ rights to an impartial jury.
     On review, a majority of the justices held that federal district courts do have an inherent power to rescind a jury discharge order and recall the jurors if, as in the case at hand, the judge identifies an error in the jury’s verdict.
     But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her opinion for the court majority, cautioned that “Because the potential of tainting jurors and the jury process is extraordinarily high … this power is limited in duration and scope, and must be exercised carefully to avoid any potential prejudice.”
     “Here, the District Court rescinded its order discharging the jury before it issued a final judgment,” she continued. “Rescinding the discharge order restores the legal status quo before the court dismissed the jury. The District Court is thus free to reinstruct the jury.”
     Sotomayor noted that the Supreme Court has in the past held that district courts have the “inherent authority to manage their dockets and courtrooms with a view toward the efficient and expedient resolution of cases.”
     This recognition, she wrote, “is consistent with recognizing an inherent power to recall a discharged jury and reempanel the jurors with curative instructions.”
     “Compared to the alternative of conducting a new trial, recall can save the parties, the court, and society the costly time and litigation expense of conducting a new trial with a new set of jurors,” she said.
     In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said his colleagues in the majority got the decision wrong because they failed to adhere to the precepts of common law.
     Justice Anthony Kennedy joined Thomas’ dissent.
     “Even though contemporary jurors are not formally sequestered as they were in common law, they are still subject to significant restrictions designed to prevent undue influence,” Thomas wrote. “And in today’s world of cellphones, wireless Internet, and 24/7 news coverage, the rationale that undergirds the bright-line rule supplied common law is even more relevant: Jurors may easily come across prejudicial information when, after trial, the court lifts their restrictions on outside information.
     “I would therefore hew to that rule rather than adopt the majority’s malleable multi-factor test for prejudice,” he said.

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