“A Clear, Direct Question”

January 17, 2008

A jury in Miami awarded $3.9 million to the mother of a young woman who was killed by a drunk driver. After the verdict, the State Farm defense attorneys found out for the first time that the jury foreman’s father had been an alcoholic. They asked for a new trial alleging that the foreman had concealed this important information from them during jury selection. The trial court denied the request, and the appellate court affirmed the verdict holding that a key requirement to establishing  prejudicial concealment of information by a juror during voir dire is a “clear, direct question” requiring a response by the venire member. “No such question was posed here.” So the verdict was upheld.  Hood v. Valle, 979 So. 2d 961 (Fla 3rd DCA 2008).

But it’s not that simple. In Hood, two panels of jurors were questioned separately during voir dire. Apparently, the first panel was seated in the courtroom while the second panel was being questioned. And although there were questions asked of the second panel concerning family members with substance abuse problems — to which two members of that panel responded that their fathers had been alcoholics — no such question had been asked of the first panel from which the foreperson ultimately emerged. The first panel had earlier been asked general questions concerning whether “anything about drinking” might affect their consideration of the case, or whether they had any “strong feelings about people who drink?” But, as noted by the Court, they had never been asked the “clear, direct question” whether they had a parent who was or had been an alcoholic.

As a result of the inadequate questioning, the appellate court concluded that the first panel (sitting separately) had no reason to believe that they were to participate in the questioning of the second panel, or that they had some duty to supplement their own previous answers in response to later questioning. “No member of the first panel, including the subject juror, responded to questions addressed to the second panel.” Accordingly, the Court did not find any indication that the juror in question concealed information during the questioning, and therefore the jury’s verdict was affirmed.