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Alleged Jury Misconduct Not Enough to Overturn Los Angeles Personal Injury Verdict

Californians who suffer serious injuries in accidents because of negligence may be entitled to recover compensation for their losses. However, as the decision in Stokes v. Muschinske, Cal. Ct. App, Case No. B280116 demonstrates, it is important to properly value your claim and that you do not overreach. Even when jury misconduct might have occurred, it may not be enough to secure a new trial when your damages award is much less than what you expected.

Factual and procedural background

Plaintiffs James Stokes and Patricia Stokes were traveling in their car on March 28, 2013. Defendant Martin Muschinske was operating a pickup truck with a horse trailer at the same time. The truck and trailer were fully loaded, and Muschinske rear-ended the Stokes’s car, causing serious injuries to James Stokes.

Muschinske stipulated that the accident was his fault. The Stokes filed a lawsuit against Muschinske, and he disputed the damages amount claimed by the plaintiffs as well as causation for the injuries. The case did not settle and went to a jury trial.

During jury selection, the plaintiffs’ lawyer asked all of the prospective jurors if they had ever been sued. A couple of the prospective jurors stated that they had, and one of them stated that he was biased and could not be fair and impartial. That juror was dismissed. Later, juror no. 11 was called to the jury box. While he was being questioned, he stated that he did not want to be there a few times. He also stated that he could be fair and impartial. The plaintiffs’ lawyer again questioned the jury panel as a whole whether anyone had ever been sued before, and no one raised their hands.

Juror no. 11 was ultimately selected for the jury and served as its foreperson. After a lengthy trial, the jury returned a verdict in the plaintiffs’ favor for a total amount of $560,537.71 for James Stokes and $50,000 for Patricia Stokes. Before trial, the plaintiffs had demanded more than $23.5 million for James Stokes and $4 million for Patricia Stokes. The defendant had made a pretrial offer of less than $500,000 for the total damages.

The plaintiffs filed a motion to overturn the jury’s award of damages. They argued that juror no. 11 had deliberately engaged in misconduct by failing to report that he had been a defendant in two prior civil cases. They also argued that the defendant’s counsel violated the collateral estoppel rule by entering testimony about the availability of Medicare and Social Security for the plaintiff. The Superior Court ruled that there was no evidence that juror no. 11 engaged in deliberate misconduct or that any misconduct would have changed the outcome of the case. The court also found that the collateral estoppel rule had not been violated and upheld the jury’s damages award. The plaintiffs then filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals.

Issues: 1)Whether juror no. 11’s failure to disclose his involvement in two prior trials rose to the level of misconduct that would require a new trial on damages; and 2) Whether the defendant attorney’s references to Medicare, to Kaiser, and to Social Security violated the collateral estoppel rule?

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that juror no. 11’s failure to disclose his involvement in two prior trials as a defendant amounted to misconduct that should have resulted in the court’s overturning the damages award by the jury. The juror had previously served as an agent for a corporation that was sued, and he was named as a defendant to that lawsuit along with the corporation.

In a separate case, the juror was named in a lawsuit against a medical company for an alleged breach of a stock purchase agreement. In the case involving the medical company, the plaintiff submitted a copy of the proof of service. That case did not have any hearings and was dismissed a few months later. In the second case, the plaintiff only submitted proof of service on the business entity but not on juror no. 11. In that case, juror no. 11 was removed as a defendant after four months. The plaintiff also argued that the defendant violated the collateral estoppel rule by mentioning Kaiser Permanente, Medicare, and Social Security during the trial.

Rules: (1)Juror misconduct may be the basis of a new trial, but plaintiffs must establish that any misconduct was prejudicial. (2)Under the collateral estoppel rule, defendants are not allowed to submit other avenues of paying for medical costs during the trial.

Under Cal. Code Civil Proc. § 657, juror misconduct that substantially affects the rights of the parties may be grounds for the granting of a new trial. However, under Ovando v. County of Los Angeles, 71 Cal.Rptr.3d 415 (2008), parties that file motions for new trials based on juror misconduct must be able to establish both that misconduct occurred and that it was prejudicial in nature.

Under the collateral estoppel rule as explained in Howell v. Hamilton Meats, 129 Cal.Rptr.3d 325 (2011), (note: we analyzed this case in our Los Angeles personal injury blog some time ago) payments that a plaintiff might receive from public or private sources to pay for his or her medical costs should not be subtracted from an award of damages. Since these payments cannot be subtracted from the damages awards, they are also inadmissible as evidence.

Analysis

The court first reviewed the alleged misconduct by juror no. 11. It noted that the plaintiffs’ attorney did not specifically question him about whether he had ever been sued but instead only asked a blanket question to the entire voir dire panel. The court noted that it was possible that juror no. 11 either simply didn’t hear the question or didn’t understand it. It also looked at the two prior cases in which he had been named as a defendant. The court noted that one case was dismissed in its entirety after a few months, and no hearings had been conducted. The court noted that in the other case, he was simply named as a defendant as an agent of the corporation for which he worked, and he was dismissed as a defendant from the case after four months.

The court noted that he did not have any meaningful participation in either case. The court also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion that he was trying to get on the jury so that he could act from a biased position against the plaintiffs. Instead, the court noted that he had stated that he didn’t want to be there several times, and the other jurors indicated that he never talked about his involvement in any prior cases or about any bias he might have felt. The court found that there was no evidence of misconduct on his part.

The court next looked at the collateral estoppel rule. It noted that both parties referred to Kaiser multiple times throughout the trial. The plaintiffs’ attorney had objected to testimony in which a witness talked about Medicare and Social Security but was overruled. The court found that the mentions of Medicare, Kaiser, and Social Security did not incorporate a discussion of any payments that he might receive and did not violate the collateral estoppel rule.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the Superior Court’s ruling. It ordered the plaintiffs to pay the defendant’s costs on appeal.

Contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat

If you have suffered serious injuries in an accident that was caused because of the negligence of others, you may have legal rights. It is important for you to arrive at a sound valuation of your potential claim. If you claim much more than your case is worth and turn down § 998 offers prior to trial and fail to beat them, you may have to pay the costs of the defendant. To learn more about your rights, contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat to schedule a consultation.

Sources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2019/b280116.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2019-04-12-personal-injury-8e13ec4018&utm_content=text-case-read-more-5

https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/code-of-civil-procedure/ccp-sect-657.html

https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=1292500876434968539&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

https://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/howell-v-hamilton-meats-34008

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