The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) in its opinion filed on October 25, 2017 affirmed a federal medical malpractice jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $2.75 million, finding no cause to overturn the verdict based on some jurors’ exposure to news reports and a Facebook posting regarding the defendant doctor’s unrelated alleged bad acts involving overprescribing opioids, and the defendant having had his medical license suspended.
The night prior to the third day of the federal medical malpractice trial, local television stations reported that the decedent was one of five patients under the defendant’s care who died during a period of six years, and that the defendant’s Virginia medical license had been suspended the prior year, for a period of two years, due to the defendant prescribing large amounts of opiate drugs to several patients with drug-seeking behavior. There was also a Facebook post that included a headline reading, “Va. doctor on trial for deadly malpractice involving drugs.”
The federal district court judge asked the jurors in the medical malpractice case if any of them had been exposed to the news reports, and four of the jurors indicated that they had. The judge then excused the jury to the jury room and individually questioned each of the four identified jurors about what they had been exposed to and whether it would affect their fairness and impartiality (only one juror saw the Facebook post). Each of the five jurors assured the judge that any information he or she heard had no effect on his or her ability to be fair and impartial and had not influenced his or her perception of the case.
The defendant doctor moved for a mistrial on the basis of the news reports and the Facebook post, arguing that the information had prejudiced the jury. The federal district court judge denied the motion, concluding that there was no reasonable possibility or probability that the jury was influenced by the news reports; the jurors’ exposure was brief and inconsequential; and, the jurors understood what this case is about, which doesn’t have anything to do with drugs. The federal medical malpractice jury then returned to the courtroom, and the judge instructed the jurors to put the news reports out of their minds.
The federal medical malpractice jury subsequently returned a verdict of $2.75 million in favor of the plaintiff. The defendant filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the jury was influenced by the negative news reports and evidence that the defendant’s medical license was suspended. The judge denied the defendant’s motion, holding that the jury was not prejudiced by the news reports, and the defendant appealed.
The Federal Appellate Court stated that the district court judge gave a cautionary instruction to the jury, charging the jurors to put the news reports out of their minds, which the Federal Appellate Court presumed the jury followed and held that there was no reason to believe that the jury ignored the curative instruction or otherwise was confused.
The Federal Appellate Court stated that in considering whether there exists a reasonable possibility that the jury’s verdict was influenced by an improper communication, the district court is required to consider the extent of the improper communication; the extent to which the communication was discussed and considered by the jury; the type of information communicated; the timing of the exposure; and, the strength of the opposing party’s case. The Federal Appellate Court stated that the most important factor is the extent of the communication.
The Federal Appellate Court held that the jurors’ brief exposure to the news reports gave them very little opportunity to glean any prejudicial information, and no juror indicated that he or she learned from the news reports that the defendant’s medical license had been suspended. Most importantly, the district court judge did not believe that anything the jurors saw or heard influenced them such that they would be incapable of rendering a fair and impartial verdict in the case.
The Federal Appellate Court held: “On the whole, the record demonstrates that the district court took the issue of improper influence seriously. Appellants were permitted to collect the news reports and provide copies to the district court before the district court raised the issue with the jury. The district court asked each juror who was exposed to the news reports about what he or she read or heard and whether that would affect his or her perception of the case. The jurors indicated that they believed the story was not related to the trial and that they understood not to consider the information. The district court, which was in the best position to observe the jurors’ demeanor and evaluate their credibility, determined that the jurors did not ‘draw any [prejudicial] conclusions’ from the news reports … Nothing about the district court’s process or its ultimate conclusion suggests an abuse of discretion. It employed the Remmer presumption despite doubts about the applicability of the Remmer presumption to public communications, conducted the required evidentiary hearing, and determined that there was no reasonable possibility that the news reports improperly influenced the jury. Even under the ‘narrowed’ abuse of discretion standard we must apply here, there are no grounds for reversal.”
Source Bagheri v. Bailey, No. 16-1712.
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