Defense Verdict Upheld on Post-trial Motion in Levaquin MDL

About 1700 federal cases sit in the MDL for the product Levaquin makers.  Levaquin is an antibiotic used to treat a variety of bacterial infections, including upper respiratory infections. Plaintiffs in the MDL allege they have been prescribed Levaquin, and allege that it causes tendons to rupture. They claim that defendants' warnings about this alleged side effect were inadequate.  Defendants deny these allegations.

In this mass tort, the MDL court has begun to try bellwether cases. Recently the MDL court rejected a plaintiff's post-trial motion after he lost the third such trial. See Straka v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 08-5742 (D. Minn., 9/28/12).  A jury found that the alleged failure to warn Straka's prescribing physician about the risk of tendon rupture did not cause the plaintiff's injuries. After trial, one issue was the ubiquitous and almost never prevailing "verdict against the weight of the evidence" argument.  The court disposed of this by noting the sufficient evidence at trial supporting the jury's finding in that Straka's injuries were caused by something other than Levaquin, and that a different warning would not have changed his physician's decision to prescribe Levaquin. Defendants presented evidence about Straka’s steroid use and testimony that steroid use can contribute to tendon injury without the use of Levaquin.  And defendants did a good job presenting evidence that the prescriber could not remember reading the Levaquin label and did not learn of the tendon-associated risks of Levaquin until well after the black box warning was added and a Dear Doctor letter was distributed.

Perhaps more interesting for the trial lawyers among our readers is the argument for a new trial because one juror worked for a company that had a business connection to one of the defendants. Specifically the juror disclosed after trial began that her employer provided services to one of the defendants' (J&J) disability insurance carrier. Straka contended the doctrine of “implied bias” required the court to strike this juror. But the juror could not recall having ever worked on a Johnson & Johnson issue, and she indicated that she was unaware what proportion of her work came indirectly from Johnson & Johnson. When asked if her company’s connection with Johnson & Johnson would affect her ability to be fair and impartial, she said no. 

The doctrine of implied bias (also referred to in some cases as “implicit bias”) requires a court to strike a juror in extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances. See Sanders v. Norris, 529 F.3d 787, 792 (8th Cir. 2008).  The juror here did not have the type of financial relationship that would require the Court to presume implied bias: she was not employed by defendants, or even employed by a company that worked directly for Johnson & Johnson.  Nor was it unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in deliberations in this situation. She was sufficiently removed from Johnson & Johnson that she did not realize that her company did any work relating to the defendants until a co-worker recognized it. So no error in proceeding.

[FYI, according to the court, some MDL parties discussed have discussed a tentative settlement agreement reached on September 25, 2012, in a conference held in front of Chief Magistrate Judge Boylan. This tentative settlement agreement is being drafted, and involves the case inventories of 6 law firms. The effect of this settlement would reduce the MDL case count by 845 cases and plaintiffs. At the time of the status conference several other plaintiffs' firms have expressed an interest in exploring settlement, but there remain firms that are interested in going forward with the litigation, according to the court.]


 

FJC Releases Report on Juror Use of Social Media

Here at MassTortDefense we have observed the many ways in which the evolution and spiking popularity of social media has affected the practice of law.  We are blogging, obviously, can be followed on twitter (@MassTortDefense), and have a presence on Linkedin. On the day Facebook has filed for an historic IPO, it may be a good time to look at the issue of the use of social media by jurors in the courtroom.

The Federal Judicial Center released a report on the topic last week.  At the request of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, the Federal Judicial Center conducted a survey of district courts to assess the frequency with which jurors use social media to communicate during trials and deliberations, and to identify effective strategies for curbing this behavior. The results, based on the responses of 508 responding judges, indicate that detected
social media use by jurors is so far infrequent, and that most judges have taken steps to ensure jurors do not use social media in the courtroom. The most common strategy is incorporating social media use into jury instructions—either the model jury instructions provided by CACM or judges’ own personal jury instructions. Also common are the practice of reminding jurors on a regular basis not to use social media to communicate during trial or deliberations, explaining the reasons behind the ban on social media, and confiscating electronic devices in the courtroom.
 

Only 30 judges reported instances of detected social media use by jurors during trials or deliberations. But almost half the judges said they had no good way of knowing whether jurors were using social media.  Nearly 94 percent of the judges who responded to the survey have specifically barred all case-connected use of social media. Judges admit that it is difficult to police jurors, and therefore use of social media is difficult to detect.

Of the types of social media used by jurors, Facebook was ranked as the most common, with instant messaging second.  Twitter lagged behind in this survey.  In most instances, the social media use was in the form of posts about the progress of the case. But the judges reported a handful of attempts by jurors to  “friend” one or more participants in the case. And three reported jurors who revealed aspects of the deliberation process.

 

 

New Proposed Jury Instruction on Electronic Devices

At its last meeting, the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM) endorsed a set of suggested jury instructions that federal district judges are to consider using to help deter jurors from using electronic technologies to research or communicate about cases on which they serve.

The CACM Committee developed these instructions to address the increasing incidence of juror use of such devices as cellular telephones, BlackBerries, or computers to conduct research on the Internet or communicate with others about cases. Such use has resulted in mistrials, exclusion of jurors, and, even, imposition of fines. The suggested instructions specifically inform jurors that they are prohibited from using these technologies in the courtroom, in deliberations, or outside the courthouse to communicate about or research cases on which they currently serve.

The instructions admonish the jurors to decide the case based solely on the evidence presented within the four walls of the courtroom. It also notes in part that jurors may not communicate with anyone about the case on a cell phone, through e-mail, BlackBerry, iPhone, text messaging or on Twitter.

 

Juror Internet Search Warrants New Trial

Many a reader of MassTortDefense has wondered and worried about whether jurors were following a court's admonishment not to see or read anything about the issues in a case outside of the court room.  Sequestration is rare, especially in a civil case. (The O. J. Simpson jury was sequestered for eight and a half months.)  And with the advent of the Internet, jurors have potential access not only to publicity about the actual trial, but fingertip access to research tools on any issue in the case. Some of the same concerns arise with potential jurors; it may be impossible to ask enough specific questions in the voir dire process to ferret out every such issue.

A recent take on this comes in Russo v. Takata Corp., 2009 WL 2963065 (S.D. 9/16/09).  The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that a potential juror's Google search of a defendant seat belt manufacturer, and his conversation about his findings with other jurors during deliberations, warranted a new trial.

Plaintiffs' decedent was a  sixteen year old driver of her mother's vehicle, on the way to school. The vehicle crossed the centerline, traveled back into its lane of traffic, slid sideways off of the shoulder of the road, and rolled almost three times down a steep ravine before hitting a tree. The girl was killed.  Plaintiffs alleged that the seat belt unlatched due to inertial forces acting on the buckles during the rollover. General Motors Corporation and Suzuki Motor Corporation settled their respective claims before trial.

Takata, the manufacturer of the model TK-52 seat belts installed in the vehicle, denied Plaintiffs' claims. Takata proceeded to trial under the theory that the decedent did not buckle her seat belt before the crash, and that she negligently failed to maintain control over the vehicle. Takata also denied that inertial unlatching of the model TK-52 seat belts was possible in real world accidents.
 

Takata filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude or limit evidence on alleged prior seat belt failures. The trial court determined that such evidence was “relevant solely to the issue of notice regarding the alleged defect” and irrelevant to whether a defect actually existed in the seat belt involved in this case. It then limited the evidence of prior alleged accidents, claims, and lawsuits to the issue of notice.


At trial, Plaintiffs presented evidence that other drivers or passengers had experienced seat belt failures in the past. Some of the witnesses were uncertain whether their seat belt was manufactured by Takata, or whether notification given to General Motors was passed on to Takata. Evidence was also presented to the jury that ten other lawsuits had been filed against Takata alleging seatbelt malfunctions. The jury was instructed that evidence of other lawsuits and complaints was “only for the purpose of establishing whether Takata had notice of the alleged defect.”

During deliberations, one juror asked out loud whether Takata had ever been sued. A juror (Flynn, according to the opinion) responded that he had done a Google search and had learned that Takata manufactured seat belts and airbags but did not find any lawsuits during his search. The entire exchange lasted approximately three to five minutes, and no report was made to the trial court concerning Flynn's remarks. The jury deliberated for approximately another one and one-half hours before reaching a verdict for Takata.  Plaintiffs later filed a Motion for New Trial alleging juror misconduct. Affidavits from ten jurors were filed with the motion.

The state Supreme Court noted it was announcing no hard and fast rule that all such types of Internet research by a juror prior to trial without notice to the court and counsel automatically doom a jury's verdict. Rather, the court gave deference to the trial court, which had the distinct advantage of being present throughout the nineteen-day trial. The trial court was in the best position to determine whether material was extrinsic to the issues before the jury, or whether the extraneous material prejudiced the jury. The trial court's award of a new trial was affirmed.
 

The reasoning: statutory language in many jurisdictions limits the type of information that a juror may be asked to provide via an affidavit or under oath at a hearing on a motion for new trial.  And that's the only way, typically, for a litigant to show juror conduct.  The prohibition on admitting testimony and affidavits pertains to intrinsic information, which includes statements or discussions which took place during deliberations.  Testimony and affidavits concerning extrinsic information, however, may be obtained from a juror.  Extrinsic information includes media publicity, conversations between jurors and non-jurors, and evidence not admitted by the court.  It also includes “knowledge relevant to the facts in issue not obtained through the introduction of evidence but acquired prior to trial, experiments, investigations, news media, etc.”   Secondly, the type of after-acquired information that potentially taints a jury verdict should be carefully distinguished from the general knowledge, opinions, feelings and bias that every juror carries into the jury room.

Takata argued that the information Flynn obtained during his Google searches was not extrinsic  because it was obtained before trial and was discoverable through voir dire.  As such, Takata argued it should have been explored during voir dire. The court found that Takata's argument that Plaintiffs could have asked more probing questions and possibly discovered Flynn's prior knowledge was likely valid. Takata's argument, however, missed the mark, said the court, in that Flynn obtained the information (that no lawsuits were listed on Takata's home page) after receiving his jury summons; that fact was specific to the defendant and relevant to evidence that was admitted at trial for a limited purpose under a carefully crafted order.  It pertained to the issue of knowledge of a defect with the TK-52 seat belt, an issue hotly contested between the parties, and it directly contradicted the evidence admitted at trial under the trial court's limiting order. This was not simply information that Flynn obtained in passing from media outlets prior to his awareness that a suit against defendants was pending.  The juror apparently sought out the information specifically in response to the receipt of the summons in which the names of the defendants were first made known to him, observed the court.

The burden of persuasion as to prejudice is on the party seeking a new trial. The trial court concluded as a matter of law that Flynn's extrinsic information prejudiced the jury's verdict. The information was presented to jurors at an arguably critical juncture during deliberations, and it had a tendency to influence the jury in a manner inconsistent with the evidence and the instructions of the trial court. Extrinsic information that goes beyond the mental processes of one juror and becomes known to other jurors can prejudice a jury verdict and affect the substantial rights of the party seeking a new trial. At least four jurors, including Flynn, were involved in the conversation in which Flynn revealed his Google search. While all jurors agreed that the jury did not discuss the Google search as a panel during deliberations, the state Supreme Court did not require that the entire jury be exposed to extrinsic information in order to proceed to determine whether there was prejudicial effect.

Takata argued on appeal that the verdict on the defect claims had already been put to a vote, and the jury found that her seatbelt was not defective. Plaintiffs argued in response that the jury verdict form had not been signed at the time Flynn made his remarks. Thus, they concluded the jury had yet to reach a final verdict at the time in question.

The state high court found that the trial court was in the best position to determine which claims had been dealt with and which ones remained to be discussed by the jury at the time of Flynn's comments. It concluded that the issue of whether the seat belts were defective and whether Takata had notice was "still in play" at the time Flynn revealed his Internet searches to members of the jury.