Murphy v. Roth – Juror Social Media Use Scrutinized
Gregg Hollander | October 9, 2016 | News
American users of smartphones (which is almost everyone at this point) are rarely without these devices. According to Mashable Tech, the average person spends about three hours daily socializing on social network applications on their mobile devices – which is more than twice the amount of time they spend eating. Indeed, every passing thought – even mundane life experiences – have become the subject of user engagement on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others. So it’s not at all surprising that jurors are tempted to post about the experience as it’s happening. After all, they do it with every other element in life.
The problem is that it can conflict with the constitutional right of parties in a lawsuit or criminal case to receive a trial by a jury that is both fair and impartial. Part of that means only considering the evidence presented to them in court. But when social media feedback and information on the case is readily available at their fingertips, some jurors find the temptation too much to avoid. The U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1982 case of Smith v. Phillips that it’s virtually impossible to shield jurors from every possible influence or contact that could theoretically affect their vote. Still, prejudicial influences and occurrences need to be prevented whenever possible. When they do occur, courts need to carefully examine the effect on the case and whether either party was deprived of fair proceedings as a result, which could be grounds for a new trial.
Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently grappled with this very issue in Murphy v. Roth, a personal injury lawsuit filed after a car accident involving plaintiff and defendant.
According to court records, plaintiff alleged that juror misconduct skewed the outcome of the case, which had been decided by the jury in favor of the defendant. Plaintiff had filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied, and plaintiff appealed, alleging the denial was an abuse of the court’s discretion.
Plaintiff was injured in an auto accident in which she was initially struck from behind by a “phantom car” (a vehicle that failed to remain at the scene). The impact of being struck by that vehicle caused her to lose control of her own car. She was subsequently hit in the front by defendant’s car and forced from the roadway. Defendant denied this version of events. contending instead that plaintiff’s vehicle struck his car on the rear passenger side. This spun his vehicle to the right, and plaintiff then struck the right side of his car, and he was sent spinning off the roadway.
During the voir dire process of jury selection, jurors were instructed not to communicate with anyone about the case or their jury service. Specifically, those instructions included a ban on communication with friends and family about the case and the people and places involved, and the judge stressed this meant avoidance of electronic devices to communicate about the case. There was to be no tweeting, texting, blogging, emailing or posting information in chat rooms.
One juror during the voir dire process was asked about his beliefs about personal injury lawsuits in general and responded he believed “a good number of people sue for dumb reasons.”
He stayed on the case. The matter went to trial over the course of two days. Jurors awarded personal injury plaintiff $39,000 verdict for past and future medical expenses, though assigned plaintiff 60 percent liability, which meant defendant would only have to pay 40 percent of that. No pan and suffering damages were awarded.
Plaintiff filed a motion soon after asking for an interview with that juror previously mentioned about the potential compromise of a right to a fair and impartial jury. That hearing was granted, and it was discovered the juror fired off a series of tweets on Twitter, indicating his dismay for being picked as a juror, indicating he did not put much effort into his answers at voir dire and saying, “Everyone is so money hungry that they’ll do anything for it.”
Two hearings were held, after which the judge decided not to take any action against the juror and finding plaintiff’s due process rights were not violated. A final judgment for $27,500 was entered.
Plaintiff appealed, but the 4th DCA affirmed. The court held that the record was insufficient to prove that the juror’s actions were material to the outcome of the case.
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Murphy v. Roth, Oct. 5, 2016, Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Social Media Posts May Damage Sharpton Daughter’s Injury Lawsuit, Oct. 4, 2016, West Palm Beach Injury Lawyer Blog