Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Research in the Jury Room

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Research in the Jury Room

Article excerpt

Smotherman v. Cass Reg'l Med. Ctr., 499 S.W.3d 709 (Mo.) (en banc), reh'g denied, (Nov. 22, 2016)

I. INTRODUCTION

Jury trials are fundamental to the American justice system. Yet they are not perfect. One serious problem arises when a juror performs independent research about the case. This is unfair to the parties because the information the juror finds may be inadmissible under the rules of evidence and the party does not have a chance to explain or rebut the evidence. (1) However, granting a new trial due to this misconduct is costly. Trials are estimated to cost between approximately $20,000 and $70,000, depending on the subject matter of the case. (2) It is difficult to determine how often juror misconduct occurs because jurors deliberate in secret and have limited contact with non-jurors. (3) When juror misconduct occurs, courts must determine if there should be a new trial by considering aspects like how much weight should be given to a juror's testimony stating that extraneous information did not influence the juror's decision.

Part II of this Note discusses the facts surrounding the Supreme Court of Missouri's decision not to grant a new trial due to juror misconduct in Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center. Part III analyzes the approaches the Supreme Court of Missouri and Missouri appellate courts have taken when dealing with juror misconduct. Part IV explains the Supreme Court of Missouri's rationale for denying a new trial. Finally, Part V discusses why the Smotherman court should have granted a new trial and the techniques courts can use in the future to reduce the frequency of juror misconduct.

II. FACTS AND HOLDING

Kathrine Smotherman filed a lawsuit seeking damages against Cass Regional Medical Center ("the Medical Center") after she slipped and fell in the bathroom. (4) Smotherman claimed that the soap dispenser was placed in such a way that it dripped on the floor, so she slipped on the soap and fell. (5) The Medical Center argued that Smotherman's slip was caused either by water on the bathroom floor or her preexisting knee problem. (6) The jury returned a verdict for the Medical Center. (7)

The controversy in this case arose after the initial trial. Smotherman's attorneys contacted several jurors after trial, and one of the jurors said that he researched the weather on the day of the accident. (8) The juror found that there was "significant snowfall" in the forecast for that day. (9) Therefore, Smotherman moved for a new trial on the basis of extraneous juror research. (10)

The Cass County Circuit Court held a hearing to determine whether it should grant Smotherman's motion for a new trial. (11) At the hearing, nine of the twelve jurors testified in camera. (12) While Missouri follows the Mansfield Rule, which prevents jurors from giving testimony for the purpose of impeaching their verdict, an exception to the rule applies in this case. (13) The exception allows a juror to testify about whether a juror gathered extraneous information about the case. (14) In this case, the jurors were allowed to testify because they were testifying about another juror's independent research about the weather on the day of the accident. (15) One juror testified that the offending juror only made one comment about the weather on the date of Smotherman's accident during deliberations. (16) Several jurors testified that they did not remember hearing about the weather on the day of the accident, while other jurors did remember hearing about it. (17) All of the non-offending (18) jurors testified that it was immaterial to their decisions, but the trial court found that the offending juror's research did influence his decision. (19)

The trial court stated that even if juror testimony proves that a juror committed misconduct, a party is not necessarily entitled to a new trial. (20) Establishing that a juror committed misconduct only raises a "presumption of prejudice, and the burden shifts to the opposing party to rebut that presumption. …

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