Factual background of the case
Edgar Alcazar was a 13-year-old middle school student with special needs. On May 7, 2013, Alcazar was swinging from a branch of a tree on the school’s campus that was growing inside of a concrete planter. Alcazar had been warned not to swing on the branches in the past and had been told that doing so was dangerous. Despite these warnings, he swang on the branch again, falling to the ground and striking his head on a pedestrian walkway during his lunchtime recess. The principal was called over a radio about the incident. When he got to the scene, he found Alcazar lying on his back next to a broken branch from the tree. The branch was about six feet long and 2 inches thick at its widest point.
Edgar was conscious and had his eyes open, but was noncommunicative. The school called 911, and the paramedics transported Alcazar to a nearby hospital. He was treated for a skull fracture and a mild traumatic brain injury. Alcazar’s family filed a lawsuit against the school district, and the case proceeded to a jury trial.
Issue: Whether the court erred by failing to allow opening statements during voir dire and by failing to grant for-cause challenges to two jurors for bias?
Before the trial, the trial court judge granted a request by both sides to give mini-opening statements lasting three minutes before the beginning of voir dire of the jury panel. For the first jury panel on the first day of voir dire, both sides gave mini-opening statements. The plaintiff’s attorney presented very specific information about the case, including Alcazar’s age, the fact that he was a special needs student at a regular middle school, the school’s knowledge that children were swinging from the tree branches, the allegations of the school’s failure to cut down the branches, and the claimed damage amount in excess of $15 million. The court dismissed several jurors at the end of the first day that had been challenged.
At the start of the second day, Juror 3 asked to speak to the judge. The juror said that some of the statements that the plaintiff’s attorney had made during the opening statement made him biased against Alcazar. He indicated that he could not be fair because of the statements. The court dismissed the juror and decided against allowing the attorneys to give mini-opening statements before the jury panels on days two and three. The court also restricted the questioning during the voir dire by instructing the attorneys not to question the jurors on facts that were specific to the case.
Juror M opined that she did not believe that the school district should be held responsible for a “kid being a kid.” However, she later said that she would follow the law when questioned by the defense attorney, and the court denied a challenge for cause. Juror S said that he was hesitant about compensating Alcazar for his injuries because he already knew the rules. Upon further questioning, Juror S said that he was nervous. The court later denied a challenge for cause against Juror S. Both Jurors M and S served on the jury, and the jury returned a verdict for the school district in less than two hours. Alcazar appealed based on the court’s denial of mini-opening statements and case-specific facts for jury panels two and three and its denial of the for-cause challenges to Jurors M and S.
Rule: Attorneys shall have the opportunity to examine prospective jurors, but the scope of the examination shall be within reasonable limitations and the court’s sound discretion. The court should permit brief opening statements.
Under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 226.5, courts are supposed to give the attorneys for both sides an opportunity to examine the prospective jurors in writing and orally. The judge may place reasonable limits on the scope of the examination within the court’s discretion. At the time that the trial occurred, the statute also said that judges should give both sides the opportunity to give brief opening statements prior to voir dire.
The court examined the opening statement that was given by the plaintiff’s attorney on day one of voir dire and Juror 3’s statement that what the plaintiff’s lawyer revealed during his opening statement prevented Juror 3 from being fair. However, the appeals court noted that the scope of the examination was within the court’s sound discretion.
The court also noted that the statute at the time of the trial said that the court should give both sides the opportunity to give brief opening statements. However, the statute did not say that the judge shall give both sides the opportunity to give brief opening statements. When looking at the court’s denial of opening statements on days two and three of jury selection, the appeals court found that the trial court did so because of the potential to precondition the jurors by the plaintiff’s statement towards Alcazar’s side.
When looking at the denials of the for-cause challenges to Jurors M and S, the court looked at People v. Weaver, 111 Cal.Rptr.2d 2 (2001). A criminal case, it involved a defendant who was charged with murder. Two potential jurors stated that the death penalty should be used as a punishment for all murders. Upon questioning by the prosecutor, both said that they would follow the law. The court denied for-cause challenges to both of the jurors, and they ultimately sat on the jury panel that convicted the defendant.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of California found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the for-cause challenges. The court stated that prospective jurors may give conflicting statements, and the trial court must weigh the statements against the ability of the jurors to be fair. The trial court’s determination of whether the jurors will be fair is binding on the appeals court.
The appeals court found that it was within the trial court’s discretion to limit the examination during voir dire and to deny opening statements on days two and three. It also found that the trial court’s denial of the for-cause challenges of Jurors M and S was within the court’s discretion. The verdict in favor of the school district was affirmed.
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