Divided justices order new trial in wrongful death suit involving unwilling juror

Indiana Supreme Court justices on Thursday split in ordering a new trial in a wrongful death case involving an unwilling juror and a denied for-cause challenge.

After Kandace Pyles died following complications stemming from bariatric surgery, Pyles’ estate brought a negligence claim against various medical providers, including Dr. Samer Mattar. A medical review panel issued a unanimous opinion concluding that Mattar had failed to comply with the appropriate standard of care and that the conduct was a factor of Pyles’ resultant damages.

During trial, issues arose with a prospective juror, Dennis Miller, who indicated repeatedly that he did not want to serve as a juror and that he didn’t think he should have to or would be able to put a dollar amount to non-economic damages.

Clark moved to strike Miller for cause, but the Marion Superior Court denied the motion, concluding Miller did not meet the qualifications for such a challenge. Estate personal representative Tammi Clark then used one of her peremptory challenges to remove Miller, a challenge she later could not use to remove Juror 3, who was objectionable.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial, and the Indiana Supreme Court agreed in a Thursday opinion. The high court agreed with Clark that Miller should have been stricken for cause, albeit for slightly different reasons.

“This particular case seems to fall somewhere outside of case law upholding use of peremptory strikes for reluctant jurors and cases where for cause challenges were appropriate to strike those jurors with a specific bias. On the one hand, Miller did not state he had some specific reason to be biased against Clark or for Dr. Mattar, and there’s no evidence that he concealed any information about his feelings that would bear on the case. On the other, he stated on his juror questionnaire that he did not want to serve and during voir dire, he said he would have trouble putting a dollar amount to noneconomic damages meaning that there’s a bias against the party seeking those damages — here, Clark,” Justice Steven David wrote for the majority, consisting of Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Christopher Goff.

“Accordingly, we agree with our Court of Appeals that there is bias here. This is not to say that every unwilling or reluctant juror is biased as there are times these unwilling or reluctant jurors can be rehabilitated, but under these circumstances, Miller stated repeatedly and emphatically that he could not render a decision about noneconomic damages,” the majority wrote.

The justices further found that rehabilitation of the juror did not occur, noting that both counsel and/or the trial court “could have and should have done more” as to that point.

“Miller stated on the juror questionnaire that he did not want to serve. He made repeated, emphatic statements during voir dire about his inability and unwillingness to assess and award noneconomic damages for Clark. There was no rehabilitation effort about damages. He expressed uncertainty about whether his positive feelings for doctors would make him biased. All these things together demonstrate a potential bias against Clark necessitating Miller be struck for cause. The trial court’s failure to do so was illogical under these particular circumstances,” the majority wrote.

It also found that the circumstances in Clark’s case were different from those in Oswalt v. State, 19 N.E.3d 241, 248-49 (Ind. 2014) and a new trial was necessitated. It also found that Clark was forced to exhaust her last preemptory on Miller instead of objectionable Juror 3. Finding a new trial to be appropriate, the majority reversed and remanded for a new trial in Tammi Clark, as personal representative of the Estate of Kandace Pyles, deceased v. Samer Mattar, M.D., 20S-CT-109.

But Justices Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter dissented from the majority, with Massa first expressing concern about “the disproportionate remedy of a new trial where the biased juror never served.”

“I concurred only in result in Oswalt v. State because it did not order a new trial. … My concern then and now is that error by a trial court in failing to dismiss a juror for cause will always result in a new trial, so long as the moving lawyer subsequently uses all her peremptory strikes, then objects to the last juror seated without even giving a reason, saying (even disingenuously), ‘I would have used a peremptory on this juror but I’m all out.’ Under the analogous federal rule, the U.S. Supreme Court held, unanimously, a new trial is not appropriate,” Massa opined.

Slaughter dissented further, veering away from the majority’s opinion that the trial judge erred in denying the plaintiff’s motion to strike a prospective juror for cause.

“I cannot agree with the Court’s conclusion today that it was ‘illogical’ for the trial judge, who saw counsel’s colloquy with the prospective juror first-hand, to rule as he did. Indeed, the juror’s own questionnaire recited what the trial judge found, which is that he did not want to serve as a juror,” Slaughter wrote in dissent.

“… Granting a new trial in such circumstances because of a jury-selection finding with which we disagree, despite our duty to afford ‘substantial deference’ to such findings, with no showing of resulting prejudice, strikes me as highly uneconomic.”

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