Firm Newsletter - December 2015

Photo by Comstock/Stockbyte / Getty Images

Photo by Comstock/Stockbyte / Getty Images

Juror Misconduct Must Cause Injury for a New Trial
 

In a case tried by VLRH’s own Steve Haynes and briefed by VLRH’s own appellate counsel, Nick Dominguez, the Texas Supreme Court has provided clarity on what type of jury misconduct warrants a new trial. The Court established that when a presiding juror communicates with a party representative during the course of the trial, while those communications may qualify as jury misconduct, it does not automatically merit a new trial.

In In re Health Care Unlimited, Inc., Belinda Valdemar died as a passenger in a car accident after being driven by an employee of Realtor Health Care Unlimited (HCU). Valdemar’s survivors brought a cause of action against HCU and its employee, Edna Gonzalez, the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident. Valdemar’s survivors asserted that HCU was vicariously liable because Gonzalez was driving within the course and scope of her employment. Ms. Gonzalez was found to have negligently caused the car accident. However, the jury found that she was not acting within the scope of her employment, which indicated that HCU was not vicariously liable.

Valdemar’s survivors moved for a new trial due to accusations that the presiding juror spoke with the HCU employee during the jury deliberations and trial breaks. The trial court agreed with Valdemar’s survivors and granted the Motion for New Trial based on the “appearance of impropriety” standard. The trial court treated the motion for mistrial as a motion for a new trial and concluded in its order granting a new trial that “the integrity of the verdict rendered in this cause has been compromised and in the interest of justice, a new trial should be granted.”

The Texas Supreme Court based it’s analysis on the applicable rule in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, rule 327(a), which must be satisfied in order to qualify as jury misconduct warranting a new trial. The party moving for jury misconduct and a new trial must prove 1) the misconduct occurred 2) it was material, and 3) it probably caused injury. Tex.R. Civ.P.327(a). The first element is a question of fact that is determined by the trial court. In order to show that the conduct caused injury there must be something in the record that would have influenced a juror to vote differently than he would otherwise have done on one or more issues significant to the judgment.

Valdemar's survivors used the Texas Supreme Court’s holding in Texas Employers' Insurance Ass'n v. McCaslin to support their contention that the communications were themselves sufficient to show materiality and probable injury. However, the Texas Supreme Court distinguished the McCaslin case from the case at hand because the facts did not show that the purpose of the communication between the juror and the HCU employee was to “influence the juror’s actions as a juror.” In the case before this Court, the communications were solely about an upcoming church retreat.

The Texas Supreme Court examined the evidentiary testimony which proved that the juror and the HCU employee were communicating via telephone during deliberations about the church retreat. The HCU employee and the juror explained they knew each other before the trial and that the content of their conversations were about food to be served at the upcoming church retreat. Voicemails played during the evidentiary hearing corroborated this testimony. The Texas Supreme Court held that despite the communication be-tween the juror and the HCU employee being classified as juror misconduct there was no available evidence that the communications caused injury. Accordingly, Rule 327(a) could not be satisfied. As a result, the Texas Supreme Court held that the trial court abused its discretion and that the Motion for New Trial was improper. The Court accordingly ordered the trial court to withdraw its First Amended Order Granting New Trial and render judgment on the verdict.

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