Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center: “No Court Can Guarantee Perfect Trial”
Gregg Hollander | September 30, 2016 | Slip and Fall
A slip-and-fall accident plaintiff in Missouri sought a retrial after learning that a juror who weighed her case engaged in misconduct by Googling the weather on the exact day of her injury. The Missouri Supreme Court, in its review of Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center, ruled that while litigants are entitled to a fair trial, “No court can guarantee a perfect trial.”
That said, juror misconduct is not a recent problem. Even though jurors have strict instructions not to seek information outside what they are given in the courtroom, some still do so anyway. It has become easier in recent years, however, as the internet and smartphones have given us easy, instant access to almost any sliver of information we’d ever want to know. Jurors also have the ability to instantly communicate with friends and send out texts, tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and more in between breaks. This has meant that outside influence on jurors is not just a problem on big, high-profile cases.
Although sequestration – or keeping jurors isolated during trial – is sometimes used in serious, high-profile criminal cases, it’s not economically feasible to do it in civil lawsuits. That means your personal injury attorney needs to be vigilant about recognizing it and calling it out. The sooner it can be addressed, the better.
In the Smotherman case, plaintiff was at the medical center for an appointment following knee surgery. She was in the bathroom and testified that while getting up from using the toilet, the lights in the bathroom suddenly went out. She felt her feet move out from underneath her and she fell. As she did so, she struck her head, back and arm. A nurse eventually found her and rushed her to the emergency room. A laceration plaintiff suffered in the fall ended up becoming infected and requiring surgery to treat.
At trial, plaintiff alleged the soap dispenser had leaked, which is what caused a dangerous, slippery condition on the floor that caused her to fall. She presented as evidence of a leak photographs of a rusted strip on the heating element beneath the dispenser of soap. She also testified that she’d overheard the nurse who found her tell emergency nurses that she’d slipped and fallen on soap in the bathroom. However, plaintiff did concede she did not see what caused her to sleep and she didn’t recall seeing anything on the bathroom floor.
Defense repeatedly called plaintiff’s credibility into question, emphasizing her previous criminal convictions, noting her knee problems and indicating the rust was more likely from people shaking their hands after washing them than a leaky soap dispenser.
Jurors concluded plaintiff did not slip due to soap on the floor and the bathroom floor wasn’t unreasonably safe, entering a verdict for defendant.
After trial, plaintiff’s attorney asked two jurors about the verdict. One mentioned he Googled the weather on the day of the accident and learned there was reportedly a snowstorm that happened that day. Plaintiff then filed a motion for a new trial based on juror misconduct.
At a hearing on the matter, the juror did concede he’d Googled the weather, but most of the jurors who answered questions on the issue said they didn’t remember hearing anything about the weather. Two who did hear something mentioned about the weather say it was immaterial to their deliberations. Thus, the court denied a new trial motion. The state high court affirmed on appeal, finding the lower court didn’t abuse its discretion. Although the juror had committed misconduct, it had been immaterial to the outcome in the slip-and-fall case verdict.
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Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center, Sept. 20, 2016, Missouri Supreme Court