(CN) - The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to take up the question of whether a trial court abused its discretion by re-empanelling a jury after its dismissal and asking jurors to reconsider their verdict.
The case comes to the high court from Montana, by way of the Ninth Circuit. In August 2009, a vehicle driven by Hillary Bouldin collided with one 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 from 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.
"[T]he district court did not abuse its discretion by recalling the jurors in lieu of declaring a mistrial," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher. "First, and importantly, the recall occurred very shortly after the dismissal. Although the court might have conducted an individualized and more detailed inquiry, its questioning adequately confirmed the jurors had not been exposed to prejudicial influences during the brief period between dismissal and recall. The court's decision to recall the jurors was thus not an abuse of discretion."
U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Bea concurred with reservations. He agreed with the majority that Anderson did not err in re-empanelling the jury, and that a district court judge may re-empanel a jury only if he finds that the jury was not exposed to any outside influences that would compromises its ability to fairly render a verdict."
Where he parted with his colleagues was on the question of whether a district court judge should be required to undertake what the majority deemed an "appropriate inquiry" into whether prejudicial influences had tainted the jury.
"Because the majority's adoption of this duty of inquiry is inconsistent with our adversarial system of justice, I concur only in the judgment," Bea said.
As is their custom, the justices of the Supreme Court did not explain their rationale for taking up the case.
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