The Texas Supreme Court has overturned the verdict in a major torts case based on a nine-word note from a juror. During the second-day of jury deliberations in a rollover cases against Ford, a note was sent to the judge from forewoman Cynthia Cortez of the jury asking, “What is the maximum amount that can be awarded?” Cortez even put a smiley face on the note which sent Ford’s attorneys into a panic to settle the case. They quickly agreed to a settlement of $3 million. It was not until after the jury was dismissed that they learned that Cortez allegedly sent the note without the approval of the jury and that the jury was siding with Ford in its deliberations.
The case involve the rollover of a Ford Explorer based on an alleged faulty design. Rosa Martinez of Brownsville, Texas was paralyzed in the 2002 accident from the neck down. The Ford lawyers eventually secured sworn statements from most of the jurors which portrayed Cortez in a highly unflattering light. Jurors claimed that Cortez effectively grabbed the position of foreperson and proceeded to alienate some of the jurors.
As it turns out, the jury took less than five minutes to find that the roof of the vehicle did not have a design defect by a vote of 10-2 with Cortez in the minority. Some recalled her as the only vote against Ford on the issue. On a second question of whether the vehicle had a defect in handling or stability that caused the accident, the jury again voted heavily for Ford. Cortez had to miss a day of deliberations for personal reason and is described as aggressively pursuing a vote against Ford. There were ten jurors also expressing a position for Ford when the note was sent out of the room. Some said that they did not know about the note while others said they were vehemently opposed to it.
Notably, the trial judge would not allow for a hearing into possible jury tampering and abuse. The Texas Supreme Court will now let those issues to be addressed in addition to a new trial. THe court found that the trial court erred in denying a hearing and affidavits on the issues raised by the other jurors:
First, while Ford interviewed some of the jurors, it did not have the opportunity to question the presiding juror while she was under oath and required to respond under penalty of perjury. See, e.g., Tex. R. Civ. P. 176.6, .8 (requiring a nonparty to comply with a discovery subpoena subject to being held in contempt of court); Tex. R. Civ. P. 199.5(b) (requiring a person whose deposition is taken to be placed under oath); Tex. Penal Code § 37.02 (providing that it is a criminal offense to make a false statement under oath). Additionally, when discovery is denied and because of the denial the evidence sought does not appear in the record, determining harm from the denial is impossible and the party is prevented from properly presenting its case on appeal. See Tom L. Scott, Inc. v. McIlhany, 798 S.W.2d 556, 558 (Tex. 1990) (orig. proceeding) (“[T]he protective order shields the witnesses from deposition and thereby prevents the evidence from being part of the record. Therefore, it would be impossible to determine on appeal if the denial were harmful error.”); Jampole v. Touchy, 673 S.W.2d 569, 576 (Tex. 1984) (orig. proceeding). The lack of direct evidence about whether the presiding juror was subjected to outside influence probably prevented Ford from properly presenting its case on appeal. Accordingly, the trial court’s abuse of discretion in denying discovery was harmful. See Tex. R. App. P. 44.1(a).
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Recently, we saw a verdict overturned based on the role of a law professor as a foreperson, here.
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Kudos: Megan Provost