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Say Juror Misconduct Again! I Dare You!

Jury Misconduct.jpg

The Case:

In re Healthcare Unlimited, Inc., 2014 Tex. LEXIS 305 (Tex. 2014).

Issue:

What type of communications between a juror and a party representative, during trial, require the Trial Court to grant a Motion for New Trial.

Facts:

Healthcare Unlimited, Inc. (HCU) was sued after Belinda Valdemar died while a passenger in an automobile being driven by Edna Gonzalez, an employee of HCU. Although the jury agreed that Gonzalez negligently caused the accident, it found she was not acting within the scope of her employment, and thus, HCU was not vicariously liable.

Valdemar's survivors moved for a new trial alleging that the presiding juror engaged in jury misconduct by communicating with an HCU employee, during breaks, while the jury was deliberating.

The Court's Analysis:

To warrant a new trial based on jury misconduct, the Movant must establish that (1) the misconduct occurred, (2) it was material, and (3) it probably caused injury. Tex.R.Civ.P. 327(a). Whether jury misconduct occurs and causes injuries are questions of fact to be decided by the Trial Court. To show probable injury, there must be some indication in the record that the alleged misconduct likely caused a juror to vote differently than he would otherwise have done on one or more issues vital to the judgment. In this case, the trial Court granted the Motion for New Trial based on an "appearance of impropriety" standard.

From analysis of the evidentiary hearing testimony, the Texas Supreme Court found that the juror and HCU employee admitted they had telephone conversations during jury deliberations. However, they testified that they knew each other before the trial, their conversations only involved preparations for food to be served at a church retreat, and the conversations had begun before the trial. Voice mail recordings played during the hearing supported this testimony.

The Texas Supreme Court held that, although the communications between the juror and HCU employee constituted jury misconduct, the facts did not support a finding that the communications between the juror and HCU employee probably caused injury. Moreover, the Court also found that the Trial Court's use of an "appearance of impropriety" standard to grant the Motion for New Trial was improper. Accordingly, the Motion for New Trial was denied by the Texas Supreme Court.

What to take away:

This case establishes that not all jury misconduct, arising from juror communications with a party representative during trial, will result in a new trial. In addition to material misconduct, a Movant must show probable injury through evidence in the record that the alleged misconduct most likely caused a juror to vote differently.

In its second case in less than a month, the Texas Supreme Court continues to hold that allegations of juror misconduct have to be backed up by more than just words. You have to show injury.

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