November 18, 2019

Trial Court Erred by Not Striking Juror Who Was Uncomfortable Assessing Damages; Clark v. Mattar

Category: Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

While the previous case demonstrated a trial court’s latitude in asking questions that may rehabilitate a juror who may be excused for cause, this case shows that a trial court has much less latitude when ruling on a motion to strike if no effort to rehabilitate the juror has been made.

Clark, as personal representative of the deceased Pyles’s estate, filed a medical malpractice case against Mattar. Clark sought both economic and non-economic damages.

The case proceeded to trial. While Clark was questioning the venire, one of the potential jurors (Miller) said that he did not “want any part of” determining the dollar amount of the loss, even if instructed to do so by the trial court. Clark moved to strike Miller for cause, but the trial court refused, finding that Miller’s “problem with assessing damages in the case” did not meet “the standard of bias or prejudice against the parties of the case.” A defense verdict was returned, and Clark appealed.

On appeal, the Court noted that Miller did not say that “he did not want to [assess non-economic damages] or that it would be difficult;” rather, he “unequivocally replied that he could not” do so.

We have little trouble concluding that a stated refusal to participate in a determination of non-economic damages amounts to bias or prejudice against a plaintiff seeking such damages. Although Miller certainly expressed no bias or prejudice against Clark in particular, his statements would apply to any plaintiff seeking damages for non-economic loss in a lawsuit, a class to which Clark clearly belonged. Put another way, even though Miller’s bias or prejudice seems to be against the award of a particular type of damages in a lawsuit, his refusal to consider such damages harms a party seeking them, like Clark. Even though there is no indication that Miller had any particular issue with Clark personally, we conclude that Miller’s unequivocal statement that he could not render a verdict on damages in this lawsuit nonetheless amounts to bias or prejudice against her as a party.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that no attempt was made to rehabilitate Miller, and that the answers Miller gave before Clark’s counsel broached the subject of non-economic damages was immaterial.

To the extent that Miller expressed a willingness to follow the law, he did so only until he found out what the law actually was, which caused him to unequivocally withdraw that willingness, a position from which he did not waver. Considering the timing of Miller’s expressions of willingness to be impartial and follow the law, they do not help Dr. Mattar.

And the Court found that this prejudiced Clark, because he was forced to use a peremptory challenge to strike Miller, thus denying him the ability to use that challenge on a different juror.

The lesson to litigants is clear—if your opponent creates a potential strike for cause and you want that juror to be on the jury, make some attempt to rehabilitate. Otherwise, you risk losing a favorable verdict on appeal.

Lessons:

1. If a potential juror is not rehabilitated, then it is more likely that a trial court’s failure to strike that juror for cause will be reversed.
2. A juror is biased or prejudiced if the juror has a problem with the job he must perform, even if that bias or prejudice is not directed at a particular party.
3. A juror who refuses to assess non-economic damages in a personal injury case should be stricken for cause.