Personal injury victims in Florida are entitled to jury trials. In a recent case, a plaintiff appealed because the trial court denied her challenge to a jury for cause. Also at issue was the trial court’s refusal to permit her to tell the jury about her Social Security disability status even though the defense attorney had brought it up.
The case arose from a car accident that happened in 2008. The defendant admitted fault. At the start of trial, a jury is empaneled. Before empanelment, the lawyers and the judge conduct what is called “voir dire.” During voir dire, the attorneys and the judge ask question to find out whether the prospective jurors can be impartial.
In this case, the plaintiff’s attorney asked jurors how they felt about noneconomic damages. These are damages like pain and suffering or loss of enjoyment of life. One juror answered that she didn’t like noneconomic damages, but she could follow the law. She explained she was a worker’s compensation and general liability risk manager and she viewed those kinds of damages as punitive.
When the plaintiff’s attorney asked if she was more defense-oriented, she responded she absolutely was. However, she answered that she couldn’t answer as to whether her experience as a risk manager would make it hard for her to be fair. The plaintiff’s attorney probed further, asking if she was thinking that her experience might make her look for certain things because of her past experience analyzing claims for insurers. The juror answered yes.
When the defense attorney asked his questions of the jurors, he asked whether the prospective jurors could follow the law even if they didn’t agree with the law. Nothing was recorded on the record, but the juror in question did answer she could fairly respond to the issues of the case and follow the law.
During voir dire, attorneys for both sides are given the opportunity to challenge some jurors for cause. They are also given a set number of “peremptory” challenges; these are challenges that can be made without stating a reason. The plaintiff’s attorney moved to strike the juror at issue for cause because her answers showed she couldn’t be impartial. The trial court denied this challenge for cause.
The plaintiff’s attorney had used up his peremptory challenges, so he moved for an additional peremptory challenge. The trial court denied that request, too. Although the plaintiff’s attorney objected, the juror at issue was sworn in.
On appeal, the court explained that a trial judge must grant a challenge for cause if there is a reasonable doubt about a prospective juror’s impartiality. Ambiguities are to be resolved in favor of dismissing the juror. In past cases, prospective Florida jurors that have stated their difficulty in following the law as to an aspect of damages have been dismissed. In this case, some answers by the prospective juror were equivocal, but she was certain in stating her defense orientation. She was not rehabilitated by subsequent questions. She never recanted her prior claim of being defense-oriented and the punitive nature of noneconomic damages.
The appellate court ruled that the juror’s answers showed there was a reasonable doubt about whether she could be impartial. It found an abuse of discretion by the trial court in denying the challenge for cause. The final judgment was reversed.
If you are seriously hurt due to somebody else’s negligence, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.
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