State Supreme Court Affirms Trial Court’s Decision Concerning Challenge of Juror Disqualification for Bias

An appeal from the Circuit Court of Franklin County, Mo., ended up in the Missouri Supreme Court on the issue of a disqualifying motion of a juror who was alleged to have been biased. This was a medical malpractice lawsuit against Mercy Hospitals.

On March 13, 2013, the plaintiffs, Thaddeus Thomas, a minor, by his next friend and mother, Marlin Thomas, filed a medical negligence lawsuit in connection with the Cesarean section delivery. In the lawsuit, it was claimed that Baby Thaddeus suffered brain damage as a result of the negligence of the hospital’s medical providers before and during the labor and delivery.

During voir dire, jury selection, the Thomas attorney informed the venire panel, “[T]his case involves Mercy Clinics Physicians as the defendant and Mercy Clinic Hospital. Just knowing that they are defendants in this case, is there anyone that feels they might start off the case a little bit more in favor of one party or the other?”

The central issue in this case was prospective juror 24 who raised her hand, and the following exchange in part took place:

“PLAINTIFF’S COUNSEL: So ultimately, can you sit through this whole case without starting off a little bit in favor of Mercy or St. John’s, as you call them, or would you start off with them having a touch in favor of them?
JUROR: I don’t – maybe – yeah, probably.
PL COUNSEL: Maybe you would be slightly in favor of them?
JUROR: Yep, probably.
PL COUNSEL: Okay. And, you know, that’s – that’s all I’m trying to get is the best answer you can give, and you seem confident in that answer; is that correct?
JUROR: Uh-huh. . . .”

After that exchange, the defendants’ counsel asked to approach the bench and the parties and the judge discussed prospective juror 24’s answers. Plaintiffs’ counsel expressed doubt that prospective juror 24 could set aside her bias, while defendants’ counsel stressed “the ultimate question” was whether the prospective juror would set aside prejudice and follow the court’s instructions. The trial court stated it would give counsel the opportunity to rehabilitate prospective juror 24. After attempts to do this by both sides, the plaintiffs’ counsel moved to strike for cause prospective juror 24, arguing, “She went back and forth” and that defendants’ counsel only said, “Will you do your best,” and she said yes. But again, she said earlier she may be unfair.”

The trial court disagreed with plaintiffs’ counsel and overruled the motion to strike. Prospective juror 24 was seated as a juror and took part in the verdict which was in favor of the defendants. The plaintiffs moved for a new trial, challenging the trial court’s overruling of their motion to strike prospective Juror 24. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial and plaintiffs appealed.

“[T]he determination of the juror’s qualifications is a matter for the trial court in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, and an appellate court will reject the trial court’s determination only upon a clear showing of the use of discretion.” Joy v. Morrison, 254 S.W. 3d 885, 888 (Mo. Banc 2008). “Generally, the trial court has wide discretion in determining the qualifications of prospective jurors, and its decision will not be disturbed absent deprivation of a fair trial.” Catlett v. Ill. Cent. Gulf R.R., 793 S.W. 2d 351, 353 (Mo. Banc 1990).

The Missouri Supreme Court relied on the Joy case, which it said was a good example of this Court applying these principles in a medical malpractice case. The prospective juror admitted he was “substantially” troubled by “the issue of lawsuits against doctors” and indicated he “probably would be biased for the doctors.” Joy, 254 S.W. 3d at 892, 890. In that case, the juror was rehabilitated when asked if he could be fair and unbiased and he responded he could be fair. He also said that he thought that neither side had a “real advantage,” and he would be “fair and reasonable” in evaluating the evidence and the opinions of the other jurors. The plaintiff argued in that case that the prospective juror should have been disqualified under a Missouri statute dealing with jury selection.

In this case, the prospective juror 24 said her sister worked as a nurse in a separate hospital affiliated with the defendants through a larger group and in the burn unit rather than in obstetrics. She said she had heard good and bad about the other hospital, and while she might start out “slightly” in favor of the hospital or nurses as a result, she could put that slight tilt aside and follow the trial court’s instructions. The knowledge she said she had was not specific to the case or parties but was the sort of generalized knowledge or opinions Joy held did not constitute knowledge concerning the matter or material facts of a case and was not disqualifying if the prospective juror was able to set it aside and follow the trial court’s instructions.

The opinion went on to say that in cases where the lawyers had not rehabilitated or attempted to rehabilitate a questionable juror who was equivocal, it is incumbent upon the trial judge to question the juror further to either confirm the lack of qualifications to serve, or to rehabilitate the venireperson.

The trial court independently considered the entire voir dire examination, determined prospective juror 24’s unequivocal testimony indicated she had been successfully rehabilitated, and found she was qualified to serve on the jury. This Court cannot agree with plaintiffs that the trial court abused its broad discretion by allowing prospective juror 24 to serve on the jury. Accordingly, this Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment which was in favor of the defendants, the hospitals, in this birth injury, brain damaged baby case.

Thaddeus Thomas, a minor, et al. v. Mercy Hospitals East Communities, d/b/a Mercy Hospital – Washington, et al., No. SC 96034 (Supreme Court of Missouri, Aug. 1, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been successfully handling birth trauma injury lawsuits, labor & delivery negligence lawsuits, brain injury cases and obstetrics negligence lawsuits for individuals, families and their loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of a medical provider for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Cicero, Buffalo Grove, Justice, Kenilworth, Lake Forest, Oak Forest, Northlake, Forest Park, Franklin Park, Glenview, Prospect Heights, Chicago (Pulaski Park, Printer’s Row, Pilsen, Pill Hill, South Chicago, South Loop, University of Chicago, Wrigleyville, Bridgeport, Jefferson Park, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, DePaul University Area), Lemont, Morton Grove and Park Ridge, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of both the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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