Sunday, August 17, 2008
In A Barbie World: Court Denies Motion For Mistrial In Bratz Lawsuit After Horribly Misguided Rule 606(b) Ruling
The lawsuit between Mattel and MGA Entertainment over the Bratz doll line has produced an interesting and horribly misguided Rule 606(b) ruling. The main issue in the trial was whether Carter Bryant, the creator of the multi-ethnic, big-headed dolls, had created the doll's characters and the name Bratz while he was under contract as a Barbie designer at Mattel. The jury found in favor of Mattel on the issue as well as on almost all of the issues in the trial, handing MGA Entertainment a defeat on par with the box office disaster that was the "Bratz" movie. The verdict has to be considered a huge victory for Mattel because the $1 billion-plus Bratz doll line franchise is the main rival to Mattel's Barbie doll line. As the case now proceeds to the damages phase of trial, we will have to see whether Mattel will win the large damages award it is seeking and/or whether MGA will be enjoined from selling Bratz dolls.
And the case is proceeding to the damages phase because the United States District Court for the Central District of California denied MGA's motion for a mistrial in Bryant v. Mattel, Inc., 2008 WL 3367605 (C.D. Cal. 2008). One of MGA's main contentions in that motion for a mistrial was that the jury's verdict was based upon prejudice rather than evidence. You see, MGA's CEO is Iranian-born Isaac Larian, and post-trial jury interviews indicated that Juror No. 8 made comments regarding Larian's ethnicity and/or national origin during deliberations. Specifically, other jurors claimed that Juror No. 8 said with regard to Persians and/or Iranians that they were "stubborn," "stole ideas," "lie," and are "rude."
Readers of this blog might wonder whether the denial of MGA's motion was based upon Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b), which states in relevant part that:
"Upon 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. But a juror may testify about (1) whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention, (2) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or (3) whether there was a mistake in entering the verdict onto the verdict form."
In fact, Rule 606(b) did not prevent the court from considering this jury impeachment because Juror No. 8 admitted that the statements she made were based upon statements that her husband made to her during the trial, rendering them "extraneous prejudicial information."
So, why did the district court deny MGA's motion? The answer is that it did so based upon a misapplication of Rule 606(b). According to the court, when jurors receive extraneous prejudicial information, "the Ninth Circuit directs the trial court to consider the following factors to determine whether a new trial is warranted:
(1) [W]hether the material was actually received, and if so, how; (2) the length of time it was available to the jury; (3) the extent to which the juror discussed and considered it; (4) whether the material was introduced before a verdict was reached, and if so at what point in the deliberations; and (5) any other matters which may bear on the issue of the reasonable possibility of whether the extrinsic material affected the verdict.
The district court then found that a mistrial was not warranted because, inter alia, (1) the second and fourth factors supported the verdict because Juror No. 8's "remarks were made after agreement had been reached on all subjects upon which the jury ultimately reached a verdict;" and (2) the third factor supported the verdict because "there was no discussion or consideration of the substance of Juror No. 8's remarks."
Readers of this blog will note why the district court (and the Ninth Circuit) misapplied Rule 606(b). As I noted in a prior post in which a bailiff made improper comments to jurors in a case involving the San Antonio Spurs,
"[Rule 606(b)] strictly prevents a juror from testifying about 'the effect of anything on any juror's mind or emotions or mental processes.' In other words, even if jurors could testify about the bailiff's comments because they constituted an improper outside influence on the jury, those jurors could not testify about the effect of those comments; that analysis is left for the court. See, e.g., Pyles v. Johnson, 136 F.3d 986, 992 (5th Cir. 1998)....What the Court of Appeals should have done was make an objective assessment of what effect the bailiff's comments would have had on the average juror and determine whether Medistar likely suffered "substantial prejudice" as a result of the jury's exposure to the extraneous information."
The same goes here. And it seems clear to me that comments disparaging Iranians when the CEO for the losing party is Iranian likely caused that party "substantial prejudice."
Furthermore, even if the court was right to consider the effect of the extraneous prejudicial information on the jury, it should have declared a mistrial. Where did the court go wrong on this count? The court considered the effect of Juror No. 8's comments on the other jurors. But what it failed to do was consider the effect of the statements made by Juror No. 8's husband on Juror No. 8. It seems clear to me that the fact that Juror No. 8 felt the need to repeat her husband's statements to the other jurors indicates that she was improperly influence by his statements, causing MGA Entertainment "substantial prejudice."
What do readers think?