California Court of Appeal Finds Dismissal of Juror Prejudiced the State in Wrongful Death Claim Brought by Surviving Family Members after Motorcycle Crash

Following a fatal head-on motorcycle accident on State Highway 33, surviving family members of the deceased brought a wrongful death action.  A jury determined that the State of California and the operator of the other motorcycle had been at fault for the accident. Specifically, the State was deemed liable for a dangerous condition on the highway, and the victim’s family was awarded $12,690,000 in damages.

After deliberation, Juror No. 2 stated to the trial court that Juror No. 7 had not been deliberating, and a second Juror had stated this to be true as well. The trial court excused Juror No. 7 and seated an alternate. The issue in this case, on appeal, was whether the evidence supported a showing by “demonstrable reality” that the dismissed juror was unable to perform her duty.

On review, the California Court of Appeal stated that the Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in both criminal and civil cases.   When a trial court determines that a juror cannot perform his or her duty, the court has authority to discharge that juror. An appellate court reviews determinations by a judge for abuse of discretion, and will uphold a lower court’s ruling if there is substantial evidence supporting it, and, specifically, if the juror’s inability to perform as a juror was a “demonstrable reality.”

The standard for reviewing a discharge of a juror upon a “demonstrable reality” is a higher level of scrutiny than the typical “substantial evidence” review. On review, a court must look at the entire record and determine whether the trial court relied on evidence that supported a conclusion that there had been bias.

The appellate court stated that the trial court had refused to interview the foreperson. The State made clear to the trial court that it opposed the decision to only interview Jurors Nos. 1 and 2. The appellate court here agreed that the record had not supported the discharge, because it did not show as a demonstrable reality that Juror No. 7 was unable to perform her duty as a juror. The court stated that there had not been an adequate inquiry into allegations made against Juror No. 7.

Turning to applicable law, the court looked at precedent to determine what constituted an adequate inquiry before discharging a juror. In the case at hand, the court had asked only two jurors for evidence of the alleged juror’s inability to perform. The appellate court stated that while Juror No. 2 stated that Juror No. 7 had not been listening “well” to the views of other jurors, this was grounds for further inquiry, and not necessarily grounds for removing the juror from the panel.

The appellate court further stated that when a juror disagrees with the majority, this does not necessarily constitute an inability or a refusal to deliberate. In fact, jurors are not required to deliberate well, or skillfully. Before discharging a juror, a court has a duty to make a sufficient inquiry. In this case, the appellate court held that the inquiry had not been performed. The court should have interviewed Juror No. 7, the foreperson, and other jurors that had not complained about Juror No. 7.

In regard to prejudice, the appeals court stated that the parties here were not entitled to a unanimous jury verdict. Nine jurors were required to vote for one side or the other, regarding each question. The comparative fault allocation remained at issue, as the jury found by a 9-3 vote that the State had been 90% at fault, and that defendant was 10% at fault for the accident.

Since Juror No. 7 had stated she was inclined to vote in the State’s favor, her dismissal was prejudicial. Plaintiffs had argued, on appeal, that the State would be entitled to a retrial on the issue of apportionment of fault. The appellate court agreed, since the only aspect of the jury’s verdict that could have been impacted by Juror No. 7’s vote in favor of the State had been the apportionment issue.

The court reversed the judgment, remanding the matter to the trial court for retrial on the issue of determining fault between the State and the defendant.

At Sharifi Firm, our motorcycle accident attorneys represent injured individuals and their families throughout Southern California and help them pursue compensation for their injuries. We can be reached by calling 1-866-422-7222 and offer a complimentary consultation.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeal Affirms Judgment in Favor of County of Los Angeles Following Motorcycle Collision in Angeles National Forest, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, September 6, 2016

California Court of Appeals Finds for SCRAMP in Fatal Motorcycle Accident Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, June 23, 2015

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