Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Court: Clapping Juror’s Misconduct Not Prejudicial
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A juror committed misconduct when she applauded the plaintiff’s counsel during closing argument, but it was not prejudicial, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Concluding that the clapping—which began after the attorney told the jury on rebuttal that it could reject the entire testimony of a witness if it determined any part had been willfully false—did not, by itself, indicate the juror had unfairly pre-judged witnesses’ credibility, and that no evidence suggested it impacted the jury’s deliberations, Div. Six held that San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet did not err when he declined to excuse the juror.
The incident occurred during a breach of contract action in which prescription medication supplier Bandana Trading Co. Inc. sued purchaser Quality Infusion Care Inc. over unpaid invoices, and QIC filed a cross-complaint for interference with prospective business advantage.
Bandana, conducting business as CT International, began supplying QIC in 2004 with a medication derived from blood plasma used to treat immune deficiencies. QIC doubled its order in January 2005 after acquiring a new client, but when a blood plasma shortage developed, Bandana opted to give preference to customers who paid their invoices within 15 days, even though QIC’s time to pay previous invoices had not yet run.
After QIC did not pay the outstanding balance of $244,132.76, and Bandana refused to ship any further product, QIC obtained another supplier. However, QIC alleged, the new supplier could not meet its product needs, causing it to lose the account and $1.5 million in profit.
At the close of a three-day trial, plaintiff’s counsel argued that QIC’s witnesses were lying about many issues, including why it lost the account, and read jurors a standard instruction about rejecting their testimony if any part was deliberately false.
One of the jurors then applauded by clapping her hands, and counsel continued his argument without comment on the applause.
Following a lunch break, the judge and counsel interviewed each juror separately to determine the impact of the applause. The clapping juror explained that she had been “pleased” with the statement, while other jurors—who said they recalled the incident, but not the specific statement preceding the applause—did not indicate it would affect their impartiality.
Concluding that the incident did not cause any jurors to be “influenced or prejudiced,” Picquet wrote that it was “not of such magnitude that it would require automatic removal” and declined to remove the juror.
After deliberation, the jury returned verdicts in favor of Bandana, and Picquet denied QIC’s motion for a new trial, which—in addition to citing the “irregularity in the proceedings”—alleged that the same juror later engaged in misconduct by intimidating and rushing other jurors to a verdict, and relying on extraneous information.
On appeal, Justice Kenneth R. Yegan first opined that the applause was “technical misconduct” because it was “tantamount to the formation of an opinion as to the credibility of a witness.” However, he concluded that the clapping was not prejudicial to QIC.
“[G]iven the context, it was apparent that the juror tentatively believed that one or more of appellant’s witnesses had been less than candid,” he wrote.
While “[t]his must have left appellant’s counsel with a sinking feeling,” Yegan wrote, was an “‘insignificant infraction’…that did not prevent either party from having a fair trial,” coming as it did after all of the evidence had been heard and closing argument nearly completed.
Turning to the allegations that the juror engaged in misconduct during the deliberations, Yegan similarly concluded that it did not rise to the level of prejudicial misconduct.
Pointing out that a jury verdict “cannot be impeached by evidence of the juror’s jurors’ mental processes and reasoning, or by evidence that the jury failed to make findings on some matters,” he wrote that the other juror’s declaration fell within that category.
Yegan similarly rejected any argument that the clapping juror had committed misconduct during deliberations by relying on her experience as an accountant.
Noting that there was no evidence that the juror had decided the case based on extraneous information, he wrote that “[j]urors are entitled to rely on their general knowledge and experience in evaluating the evidence.”
Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert joined Yegan in his opinion. Justice Paul H. Coffee concurred in the result only.
The case is Bandana Trading Co., Inc. v. Quality Infusion Care, Inc., 08 S.O.S. 4298.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company