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.