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Lawyers’ Corner: Jury Discharge in Dietz v Bouldin

When is a jury’s job finished? Can they ever be recalled after they have been discharged? The U.S. Supreme Court has just weighed in on the issue, and gave judges the authority to rescind a jury discharge, with certain restrictions.

The Supreme Court of the United State doesn’t get involved in auto accident cases very often. Most of the time, those issues are resolved in state courts. But in Dietz v Bouldin, a motion to remove the case to federal district court set up a chance for the Supreme Court to weigh in on a procedural issue: when a jury’s job is done.

Juries don’t get to hear most civil cases. In 2014, only 1.1% of civil cases went to trial. When they do, they hold the ultimate authority over the facts of the case. But what happens when a jury makes a mistake? Can a judge rescind a jury discharge and ask them to fix the error? That was the question that made it all the way to the US Supreme Court in Dietz v Bouldin.

Rocky Dietz was T-boned by Hillary Bouldin as he was driving in Bozeman, Montana. He suffered lower back injuries requiring medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections. He filed a negligence case in state court, but Bouldin removed the matter to federal district court.

At trial, Bouldin admitted to causing the accident and that Dietz was injured because of her negligence. The parties even stipulated to medical expenses of $10,136. The only question for the jury was whether Dietz was entitled to anything beyond those medical expenses.

During deliberations, the jury sent out a question: “Has the $10,136 medical expenses been paid; and if so, by whom?” The judge told the jury that was not relevant to the verdict. As a result, the jury returned a verdict in Dietz’s favor, but for $0. A verdict below the stipulated damages was not legally possible, but the judge did not realize the error until he had already discharged the jury.

Moments after the jury left the court room, the judge ordered the clerk to bring them back. He explained the error and reempaneled the jurors, instructing them to award at least the amount of stipulated damages. The question at the Supreme Court level was whether, once the jury had been discharged the judge may revoke that order.

The Supreme Court noted that even though the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs district court judges’ decisions, they aren’t all encompassing. Courts exercise a number of procedural devices that aren’t listed in the rules in order to resolve cases efficiently. The Court recognized these “inherent powers” as long as they:

  • Are a reasonable response to the needs and problems arising from the fair administration of justice; and
  • Are not contrary to any rule or statute.

The Court ruled that included the power to recall a jury in a civil case. The Court said:

“First, rescinding a discharge order and recalling the jury can be a reasonable response to correcting an error in the jury’s verdict in certain circumstances.”

It noted that when a judge identifies an error in the verdict before the discharge, it is allowed to issue a corrective instruction and order the jury to continue deliberating. Specifically, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 51(b)(3) allows the court to instruct a jury at any time before the jury is discharged. Depending on the circumstances, recalling a jury may be similarly reasonable.

But the power to recall “must be carefully circumscribed, especially in light of the guarantee of an impartial jury. . . .” Because of the risk of improper bias or external prejudicial information, the Court ruled that a judge should only reempanel a jury after it determines whether any juror has been tainted. In reaching that decision a judge should consider:

  • The length of the delay between discharge and recall;
  • Whether jurors have spoken to anyone;
  • The parties’ reaction to the verdict;
  • Whether jurors had access to the Internet or their smart phones.

The Supreme Court then determined that the judge did not abuse his discretion by rescinding his discharge order. The trial court in Dietz identified the error before most of the jury had left the building. The only juror who left appeared to have gone to his hotel to get a receipt. The jurors stated they had not spoken to anyone about the case. And this was not a case where a party had an emotional response to the verdict.

The majority of the Court refused to impose a categorical bar on rescinding jury discharge orders. It said that modern trial procedures allowed harmless errors to be corrected without the time and expense of a new trial.

The Supreme Court’s decision only directly applies to those few auto accident cases that get removed to federal court. But it may also influence state court judges’s decisions when there are errors in jury verdicts. Local trial attorneys would be wise to compare the FRCP to the Michigan Court Rules. By arguing the similarities in the rules and their remedies, plaintiffs’ attorneys may be able to avoid the cost of relitigating cases that fall to procedural errors.

David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He has represented car crash victims for over 20 years. If your client is facing a challenging no-fault claim, contact Christensen Law for a referral today.