Every trial begins with an admonition that members of the jury should have no contact with the parties, the attorneys, or the witnesses. The instruction is given to ensure that the jury verdict is based on evidence admitted by the court and not by other outside, potentially prejudicial influences.
What happens when a juror ignores the court’s instruction and has a brief interaction with an expert witness? Should a mistrial be automatically granted and the trial started anew?
According to a recent New Jersey Appellate Division in Lukenda v. Grunberg, the trial court should determine whether the interaction improperly influenced the juror involved in event and whether the jury as a whole has been tainted. If not, the trial goes on.
Lukenda begins with two young adults who got together for some Christmas cheer in the young woman’s family home. According to the defendant, her male guest had too much to drink and was injured when the defendant attempted to wrestle the car keys away from her suitor. In contrast, the plaintiff denied that he was intoxicated and claimed he was injured when the defendant delivered a “blindsided kick” to his knee, causing devastating injuries. Clearly, the Christmas get together was hardly a holy or peaceful night for the young love birds.
Plaintiff’s expert orthopedist testified at trial, explaining in detail the lateral force necessary to inflict plaintiff’s injuries. During a break in the expert’s testimony, juror number two approached the doctor and quipped that “he thought the doctor was a great teacher and smiled.” Once defense counsel learned of the interaction, he moved for an immediate mistrial. The court questioned both juror number two and the expert witness about the contact between them. After juror number two assured the court that it would not affect his ability to be fair and impartial, the court admonished the juror to avoid any further discussions about the case until the start of deliberations and denied the motion.
The Appellate Division ruled that “a new trial is not necessary in every instance where it appears that an individual juror has been exposed to outside influence.” Under those circumstances, the court’s inquiry should focus on the specific nature of the interaction, whether the juror imparted the outside information to other jurors, and whether the jury, as a whole, has been tainted by the information. Of note, the defendant never requested that the court question the other jurors to determine whether they observed or overheard any part of the interaction between the chatty juror and plaintiff’s expert witness.
In Lukenda, the jury ultimately gave plaintiff a gift befitting the holiday season: it found the defendant liable and gave plaintiff a substantial award.