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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Runaway Jury: Iowa Court Precludes Jury Impeachment In Knee Infection Case

I've written several previous posts about Rule of Evidence 606(b), which generally prevents jurors from impeaching their verdicts after trial through testimony about what occurred during jury deliberations.  The bulk of my posts have related to the sharp split among courts across the country as to whether, notwithstanding Rule 606(b), jurors should be able to impeach their verdicts after trial through testimony about, inter alia, racial or religious slurs (some of these posts can be found here and here).  Indeed, after finishing an article about felony impeachment in quasi-criminals trial this summer, I will be writing an article this fall on why courts should apply the doctrine from Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973), to permit post-trial juror impeachment through testimony about racial or religious slurs, notwithstanding the rules of evidence.

But what of Rule 606(b) in general?  Does it make sense?  The Court of Appeals of Iowa's recent opinion in Reed v. Lyons, 2008 WL 2041686 (Iowa.App. 2008), provides a nice opportunity to review the Rule.  In Lyons, Austin Reed began experiencing knee problems while wrestling in high school and college.  He would occasionally have his knee aspirated (drained) by doctors, and the knee problems subsided for several years before returning in 2003.  Thereafter, on July 30, 2003, Reed went to a clinic and reported to a physician's assistant that his knee had been swelling for the past seven to eight months and that he would aspirate his own knee two or three times each week. The physician assistant, Steve Greenwaldt, advised Reed to stop self-aspirating because it could lead to infection.

Greenwaldt then referred Reed to Dr. Lyons, who last treated Reed on October 29, 2003, when he aspirated a large hematoma, or blood clot, from Reed's knee, but did not send the hematoma for lab analysis because he thought there was no evidence that Reed's knee was infected.  Thinking that his knee could be infected, Reed requested a referral to another orthopedic doctor, but on November 9, before a referral appointment was arranged, Reed's family had to take him to the emergency room after he was found passed out in his home.  Reed was diagnosed with severe infection in his right knee and treated at a hospital.

Reed thereafter sued Dr. Lyons, claiming that his negligent medical treatment led to his knee infection, and a physician's note from this treatment stated that Reed "admits that on several occasions over the last few months he has self-aspirated the knee joint," which formed the basis for Dr. Lyons' defense of comparative negligence (At trial, Reed claimed that this was incorrect and he did not self-aspirate after July 30, 2003 when Greenwaldt told him to stop).  Based upon this note, the judge gave an instruction which advised the jury that Reed could be apportioned fault if the jury was convinced that Reed was negligent by self-aspirating and this negligence was a proximate cause of the damage.  After trial, the jury found Dr. Lyons was 10% at fault and Reed was 90% at fault.

After trial, however, two jurors came forward and indicated that the jury was not persuaded by Dr. Lyons' self-aspiration defense, but instead found that Reed was at fault because he did not seeking medical attention sooner (as noted, his knee began swelling 7-8 months before he sought treatment).  The problem was that defense counsel presented no evidence at trial that Reed's delay in seeking treatment contributed to his infection, and the judge did not instruct the jury about whether Reed should have sought care for his infection symptoms earlier.  Instead, the jurors merely used external evidence of jurors' experience with infection to reach their verdict

Nonetheless, the court precluded these jurors from impeach their verdict pursuant to Iowa Rule of Evidence 5-606(b), which states in relevant part that "[u]pon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury’s deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror’s mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror’s mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information [e.g., inadmissible evidence] was improperly brought to the jury’s attention or whether any outside influence [e.g., a threat from a party's friednd] was improperly brought to bear upon any juror."

According to the court, this rule is designed "to assure finality and prevent 'what is intended to be private deliberation, [from becoming] the constant subject of public investigation; to the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference.'"  What do readers think?  Would allowing jurors to impeach their own verdicts through testimony about the internal jury deliberation process lead to juror harassment, and, as Justice O'Connor implied in Tanner v. United States, 483 U.S. 107 (1987), the destruction of the jury system itself?  Or should the interest in preventing "unfair" verdicts outweigh any danger to jurors and/or the jury system?  It's a tough question, and one that I'm not sure I can answer.  I do, however, think that when there is evidence of racial, religious, or other prejudice in the jury room, impeachment should be allowed, and I hope to prove my case this fall.

-CM

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