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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Google It: Court of Appeals Finds Juror Google Search for "Intentional Act" Inadmissible to Impeach Verdict

There's a one car accident involving a vehicle insured by Safeco Insurance Company of Illinois. The insurance company claims that the accident was covered by the intentional-acts exclusion in the insurance policy. During deliberations, the jurors ask for the judge to define an "intentional act." The judge provides no definition, so a juror does a Google search for "intentional act" and tells the other jurors about his results. Soon, thereafter, a straw poll is taken, and nine jurors find in favor of the insurance company. If the jury ultimately find for the insurance company, does there need to be a reversal? According to the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Arkansas in Safeco Ins. Co. of Illinois v. Southern Farm Bureau Cas. Ins. Co., 2013 WL 6095473 (Ark.App. 2013), the answer is "no."

In Safeco, the facts were as stated above. The Court of Appeals of Arkansas found that the issue was governed by Arkansas Rule of Evidence 606(b), which provides 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 his or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing him to asset [assent] to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning his mental processes in connection therewith, nor may his affidavit or evidence of any statement by him concerning a matter about which he would be precluded from testifying be received, but a juror may testify on the questions whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.

Interestingly, the trial court found that a juror's affidavit stating the facts in the introduction was not only insufficient to require a new trial but also insufficient to be admissible under Rule 606(b) because  it failed to prove prejudice. In agreeing, the Court of Appeals of Arkansas concluded that

Appellants contend that the trial court abused its discretion in finding a lack of prejudice. They claim that the Google definition of an intentional act “irreparably tainted” the verdict and “unquestionably resulted in prejudice.” While the Google internet search of the term “intentional act” is extraneous information,...we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that appellants failed to establish that the extraneous information was prejudicial as required by Rule 606(b). Notably, the definition of the term obtained from the internet and recited to the jury was not set forth in the affidavit. Thus, it is impossible to know how or if the definition could have prejudiced one party or the other. Moreover, the names of the jurors whose votes were allegedly altered upon learning of the internet definition of an intentional act are unknown. Therefore, it is sheer speculation on the part of Davidson to state that the jurors who “voted in favor of [Farm Bureau]” relied on the internet definition. Finally, Davidson, who also heard the internet definition, was not prejudiced by it because it did not influence her to vote with the other nine members of the jury.

-CM

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