Can a juror’s mind be so committed to one side that the juror corrupts the deliberations of the other jurors?
This was the scenario presented in a per curiam decision of the Appellate Division favoring plaintiff in Vecchiola v. Bloom, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No.: A-1331-11T4. In this case, plaintiff, Vecchiola appealed from a no cause verdict entered in favor of the defendants, Amanda and George Bloom, in an automobile negligence case in which Amanda Bloom was the defendant driver. The reviewing court concluded that the verdict should be reversed on the ground that the post-trial inquiry into one particular juror’s misconduct was not sufficiently probing to ensure the verdict reached was not the product of bias.
The matter arose following a head-on collision on May 24, 2006. Bloom’s vehicle collided with Vecchiola’s after Bloom drove across the median and struck plaintiff’s vehicle. As a result, Vecchiola sustained personal injuries for which a chiropractor, Dr. Coniglio, provided treatment. The trial commenced on January 4, 2011. In the course of the trial, Dr. Coniglio provided expert testimony on behalf of Vecchiola. The jury returned a no cause verdict in favor of defendants. On February 7, 2011, the court received a letter from Juror #2 stating that Juror #4, an employee of an insurance agency run by her father and brother, tainted the outcome of the verdict in an unfairly prejudicial manner. Juror #4 exhibited bias towards chiropractors in general according to the letter. “Although all jurors were specifically asked if they could be unbiased in accepting the testimony of a chiropractor, during jury deliberations it became apparent that one juror was highly prejudiced against chiropractors.” Furthermore, the letter elaborated that Juror #2 tried to explain to other members that everyone had a choice whether to accept the testimony of the chiropractor, but the statements by Juror #4 tainted the minds of jurors.
Vecchiola filed a motion for a new trial and the court conducted a hearing to decide whether a new trial should be granted. The court initially concluded that as a matter of justice and fairness, regardless of time constraints, there must be a new trial. The court however, did not formally revisit the matter until August, 2011 where it questioned Juror #2. A hearing was conducted on September 19, 2011 in the presence of both plaintiff’s and defendants’ counsel. The court reversed its initial position, this time finding that there was not enough evidence based on Juror #2’s testimony to order a new trial. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that:
(1) Extraneous material considered by the jury was prejudicial on its face, and the misconduct of the jury mandates a new trial, and
(2) The trial judge committed errors during the post-trial proceedings, warranting reversal of the jury verdict and a new trial.
When there are allegations of jury misconduct, the trial judge must make an objective “probing inquiry” into the possible prejudice caused by any jury irregularity. After the court goes through its probing inquiry, there must be a determination whether the conduct in dispute had “a tendency to influence the jury in arriving at its verdict in a manner inconsistent with the legal proofs and the court’s charge.”
The Appellate Division here found that Juror #2’s allegations contained in the letter to the trial court written within one month of the trial, along with Juror #2’s continued belief expressed to the court during the hearing seven months later that Juror #4 had “placed the seed” of bias in the minds of the other jurors was worthy of more probing. “Thus, while we find no error in the court’s decision to conduct an interview of Juror #2 before ruling on the new trial motion, it erred by limiting its inquiry to Juror #2.” The appellate court held that all of the deliberating jurors should have been interviewed to satisfy the court that Juror #4 had not expressed predetermined or biased views about chiropractors to other jurors, or that if those views were in fact expressed, the remaining jurors had not been influenced by those views.” See State v. Loftin, 191 N.J. 172, 193 (2007). There was a showing that the claimed error from the trial court injuriously affected the substantial rights of a party (the plaintiff) while factoring in the administration of justice in general. “Here the limited inquiry did not ensure that the administration of justice remained ‘pure and free from all suspicion of corrupting practices.’” This warranted a new trial, which is to the plaintiff’s benefit.