Sunday, April 12, 2009
Waiting For The Verdict?: Supreme Court of Texas Precludes Jury Impeachment Even In The Absence Of A Verdict
Under Texas' version of the anti-jury impeachment rule, Texas Rule of Evidence 606(b),
But can jurors testify after a trial which ended in with a settlement agreement and not a verdict, meaning that they would not be testifying upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Texas in Ford Motor Com. v. Castillo, 2009 WL 886159 (Tex. 2009), they cannot.
Ford Motor Company and Ezequiel Castillo, the plaintiff in a products liability action, settled while the jury was deliberating. The settlement occurred after the presiding juror sent a note to the judge asking the maximum amount that could be awarded. Based on later discussions with jurors, Ford suspected that outside influence may have been brought to bear on the presiding juror. After Ford sought, but was refused, permission to obtain discovery on the outside influence question, it withdrew its consent to the settlement. Castillo sought summary judgment against Ford for breach of the settlement agreement. Ford's response renewed its request for discovery, but the trial court rendered summary judgment for Castillo on the breach of settlement agreement claim.
The Supreme Court of Texas subsequently reversed, finding, inter alia, that the trial court erred by preventing Ford from conducting its proposed discovery because it was directed toward uncovering whether any outside improper influence was improperly brought to bear upon the jury, which is admissible under Texas Rule of Evidence 606(b).
The court was quick to note, however, that only evidence uncovered regarding such an improper outside influence could be admitted into evidence; anything uncovered about the internal machinations of the jury would be inadmissible. Why? Well, it wasn't based upon the plain language of Texas Rule of Evidence 606(b), which, as noted, only precludes the presentation of juror testimony "[u]
(1) keeping jury deliberations private to encourage candid discussion of a case,
(2) protecting jurors from post-trial harassment or tampering,
(3) preventing a disgruntled juror whose view did not prevail from overturning the verdict, and
(4) protecting the need for finality.
Not all these reasons apply when no attempt is being made to impeach a verdict, but the overarching principles are the same any time discovery is sought as to what occurred during jury deliberations. Jurors are summoned to court to do public service and they should not be subjected to unfettered post-trial proceedings regardless of whether their deliberations resulted in a verdict. Discovery involving jurors will not be appropriate in most cases, but in this case there was more than just a suspicion that something suspect occurred-there was some circumstantial evidence that it did.