In Khoury v. Seastrand, the court weighed an appeal by a defendant in a car accident lawsuit who alleged various errors by the trial court, including “indoctrination of the jurors” during the voir dire portion of the trial.
Voir dire is the preliminary, pre-trial examination of a juror by the judge or an attorney. Lawyers may request dismissal of certain jurors for biases – real or perceived – that could affect those persons’ ability to render a fair verdict.
The Nevada Supreme Court noted at the top of its opinion that all car accident trial lawyers know that the voir dire process can be as important to the resolution of a claim as the trial itself. Who you have deciding a case will have a significant impact on the overall outcome.
One of the questions raised in this case was whether repeatedly asking a prospective juror inquiries about a specific verdict amount to ascertain prejudice or bias against returning such a verdict is allowable or instead amounts to jury indoctrination that warrants a mistrial.
This is an important question because so-called “tort reform” advocates have been very successful in convincing large swaths of the public that personal injury plaintiffs and attorneys are greedy and unreasonable. This is a big reason why the public has allowed damage caps to be imposed on certain types of claims. It’s a mischaracterization of the judicial process and the victims in personal injury cases, but it’s been successful. While $1 million can sound like a lot of money, it may not actually be when all relevant factors are considered. The vast majority of personal injury verdicts are by no means windfalls. They are merely intended to fairly compensate victims for the wrongs they suffered through no fault of their own.
That’s why these kinds of questions regarding damage awards are necessary.
In this case, plaintiff was rear-ended by defendant in Nevada. After the accident, plaintiff received extensive treatment to her neck and back, including a number of surgeries. She soon thereafter filed a personal injury lawsuit against defendant, seeking to recover damages.
Defendant stipulated liability for the crash, but disputed medical causation and damages. He argued the injuries that required surgeries stemmed from preexisting conditions.
Plaintiff was seeking $2 million in damages. As part of the voir dire process, plaintiff attorneys repeatedly questioned jurors about specific damage amounts and whether they were prejudice against awarding them. Based on these questions, plaintiff asked to dismiss five jurors for cause. The court initially denied this request, but granted it upon reconsideration.
Following a 10-day trial, jurors awarded nearly $720,000 in damages to plaintiff, plus reimbursement for expert witness fees.
Defendant appealed on numerous grounds, one of those being jury indoctrination based on these early questions to jurors.
The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed this aspect of the trial court’s ruling. The court did find that a court may choose to allow questions regarding specific jury amounts, plaintiff attorney in this case brought up the $2 million figure repeatedly to the point it was “troubling.” However, the court held that it still didn’t reach the level of jury indoctrination. Further, while the trial court did err in allowing dismissal of those five jurors for cause, the court found this mistake was harmless.
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Khoury v. Seastrand, July 28, 2016, Nevada Supreme Court
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