Thursday, July 2, 2009
Something Special In The Verdict: Rule 606(b) Precludes Jury Impeachment On Workers' Compensation Issue In Case Against American Airlines
Judges often make rulings excluding evidence to avoid confusing the jury. Indeed, Federal Rule of Evidence 403 explicitly provides that judges may exclude even relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of confusion of the issues. Sometimes, however, in an attempt to prevent juror confusion, the judge ends up causing that very confusion. But even when a party can prove that this confusion caused a misguided verdict, Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) will preclude the verdict from being disturbed, as was the case with the recent opinion of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in Severino v. American Airlines, 2009 WL 1810014 (S.D.N.Y. 2009).
In Severino, Maria Severino claimed that while she was a janitor at JFK Airport, she slipped and fell in a stairwell in Terminal 9, which was leased and maintained by American Airlines. Severino thereater sued American Airlines, with her principal contention being that American Airlines was negligent in its maintenance of Terminal 9 because it failed to keep the roof of the building free from leaks, which, according to Severino, caused water to accumulate on the stairwell where she fell a few days after heavy rains. Specifically, Severino claimed that on the day of the accident she was assigned to clean in Terminal 9 for the first time, and when she entered a stairwell to find the employee lunchroom in Concourse "D," she slipped, fell, and severely injured her back.
Meanwhile, American Airlines claimed that Severino was not credible, noting that her former supervisor contradicted her and that, despite her claims to the contrary, she reported falling in the lobby of her apartment building two weeks before she allegedly fell at the airport. Initially, however, the parties were in agreement on at least one matter: The parties agreed to submit Severino's voluminous workers' compensation file as a joint exhibit. But American Airlines thereafter withdrew its proposed exhibit and opposed Severino's introduction of the entire workers' compensation file because the medical records in the file were cumulative. American Airlines was willing to stipulate to the amount that workers' compensation paid for medical treatment, but the judge commented that he intended to avoid "confusing the jury with Workers' Comp. issues."
Thereafter, no mention was made of Severino receiving workers' compensation, and the jury eventually returned a verdict in favor of American Airlines.
Following the jury's verdict, Severino's attorneys spoke on separate occasions with two of the jurors. According to the affirmation of attorney Steven Hoffner, Juror No. 8 informed Mr. Hoffner that the jury discussed the issue of workers' compensation and the absence of testimony about Plaintiff receiving workers' compensation payments led them to conclude that she was not in fact injured in Terminal 9. Attorney Affirmation of Steven Hoffner, dated February 11, 2009. Attorney Jan Blau spoke with Juror No. 2 by telephone. According to Blau's affirmation, Juror No. 2 concurred that the issue of Plaintiff receiving workers' compensation payments had been discussed in the jury room.
Based, inter alia, upon these jurors' allegations, Severino moved for a new trial, but the Southern District of New York found that it could not consider these jurors' allegations based upon Federal 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 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. A juror's affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror may not be received on a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying.
Therefore, even though the judge likely played a significant role in a mistaken jury verdict, Severino's motion for a new trial needed to be denied.