The Supreme Court of Missouri (“Missouri Supreme Court”), in its opinion issued on August 1, 2017, affirmed a Missouri medical malpractice defense verdict, finding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to strike for cause prospective juror 24 because she allegedly expressed a disqualifying bias in favor of defendants under section 494.470, because the prospective juror did not say she had knowledge concerning the “matter or any material fact in controversy” from which to form an opinion requiring her disqualification under subsection 1.
The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding, without additional questioning, that the prospective juror was rehabilitated when the entire voir dire was considered, including her later statement that she could follow the trial court’s instructions.
Section 494.470 provides in relevant part: “1. … [N]o person who has formed or expressed an opinion concerning the matter or any material fact in controversy in any case that may influence the judgment of such person … shall be sworn as a juror in the same cause. 2. Persons whose opinions or beliefs preclude them from following the law as declared by the court in its instructions are ineligible to serve as jurors on that case.”
The Missouri Supreme Court stated that there are two types of juror bias: Section 494.470.1 identifies one type of bias involving venire persons who have formed an opinion on the material facts of the case, and the other type of bias focuses on opinions about “larger issues,” which are opinions that all prospective jurors will have to some extent. Under Section 494.470.2, that type of bias is disqualifying only if the prospective juror’s views would preclude following the instructions given by the court.
The Missouri Supreme Court stated that opinions formed, but not of a fixed character, and which readily yield to evidence, do not disqualify the juror.
The Missouri Supreme Court held in the case it was deciding that prospective juror 24 had no knowledge concerning the matter or any material fact in controversy from which to form an opinion requiring her disqualification under subsection 1. She only 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 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 that 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.
In the case the Missouri Supreme Court was deciding, counsel for both the plaintiffs and the defendants asked additional questions of prospective juror 24 and her initial reservations, therefore, must be considered in the context of the entire voir dire in deciding whether she showed an ability to be impartial because mere equivocation is not enough to disqualify a juror. If the challenged venire person subsequently reassures the court that he or she can be impartial, the bare possibility of prejudice will not deprive the judge of discretion to seat the venire person. Initial reservations expressed by venire persons do not determine their qualifications; consideration of the entire voir dire examination of the venireperson is determinative.
The Missouri Supreme Court warned, however, that if counsel had not asked further and established an unequivocal response that prospective juror 24 could set aside any bias and judge the case fairly and impartially, the trial court would have been obligated to do so before seating the juror, for where a venire person’s answers are equivocal as to his or her qualifications to be a juror, 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 venire person. In such a situation, failure by a trial judge to question independently a potential juror to explore possible prejudice may undercut any basis for a trial judge’s exercise of discretion and constitute reversible error.
In the case it was deciding, the Missouri Supreme Court noted that prospective juror 24 specifically stated she would not give defendants more credibility than plaintiffs. She also explained her slight bias arose not out of personal experience but rather on general opinions her sister expressed based on her experience as a nurse in the burn unit of a related, but different, hospital. When asked, “Can you put that aside and assure the Court that you will do your level best currently to decide this case based on what you hear in this courtroom, not what your sister has told you, not anything about [the hospital], just on the evidence from the box and the judge’s instructions?” prospective juror 24 answered, “Yes. I’ve heard good and bad. I’ve heard both.”
The Missouri Supreme Court stated that it was not improper for the trial court to rely on the juror’s assessment of her own ability to be impartial.
The Missouri Supreme Court concluded, “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.” The Missouri Supreme Court therefore affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
Source Thomas v. Mercy Hospitals East Communities, No. SC96034
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