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Juror’s weather research not enough for new trial

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled last week that a plaintiff in a slip-and-fall case is not owed a new trial even after a juror admitted to conducting independent research.

In a 4-3 decision, the court’s majority acknowledged that the juror’s misconduct — looking up the weather on the day of the accident — raises a presumption of prejudice. But, Judge Mary R. Russell added, the trial judge was still entitled to believe the testimony from eight other jurors who said they weren’t influenced by the improper research.

“To hold summarily on appeal that the live testimony of jurors who did not participate in any misconduct should be given little or no weight would displace the trial court as the proper arbiter of credibility and, further, would imply that the statements of individuals who properly fulfilled their civic duty in serving on the jury are inherently suspect,” Russell wrote.

Kristine Smotherman had alleged that she was injured when she slipped on soap from a leaky dispenser in a bathroom at Cass Regional Medical Center. The jury, however, found in favor of the hospital.

After the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney learned that a juror had Googled the weather for the day of the slip and fall and found that significant snowfall was in the forecast. Such evidence might have supported the defense’s argument that something other than soap, such as water from melted snow, had caused Smotherman to slip.

Judge William B. Collins held a hearing, at which eight other jurors testified that the weather forecast hadn’t affected their deliberations, either because they didn’t hear about it or they found it irrelevant. Collins found the extraneous investigation was immaterial to the case.

Judge’s discretion

The Supreme Court majority said Collins was acting within his discretion. The plaintiff’s argument, Russell said, amounted to a proposed rule that “non-offending jurors’ testimony in support of their verdict should never be accorded any weight,” which she refused to adopt.

“As the fact-finder, it is in the trial court’s province to determine the credibility of witnesses, and there is no logical reason to treat non-offending jurors as categorically less credible than all other witnesses, such that trial courts cannot be trusted to weigh the veracity of their testimony,” Russell wrote.

Defense attorney Sean T. McGrevey of Adam & McDonald in Overland Park, Kansas, said Tuesday’s ruling clarifies that a trial doesn’t require a re-do every time a juror engages in some kind of misconduct. But, he said, in such situations it is imperative for the other jurors to testify about the effect it did or didn’t have on the verdict.

“The only way to demonstrate, in my mind, that the other jurors saw it for what it was — i.e. silly and not truly impactful whatsoever — is to demonstrate that through their own words,” McGrevey said. (He noted that in addition to the eight jurors’ live testimonies, he’s gotten written affidavits giving similar opinions from the three other jurors, who weren’t able to attend the post-trial hearing.)

The case is Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center, SC95464.