Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Pennsylvania Superior Court Addresses Right to Fair Jury in Civil Cases

In its recent decision in the medical malpractice case of Cordes v. Associates of Internal Medicine, ____ A.3d _____, No. 1737 WDA 2011, 2014 (Pa. Super. 52) (Pa. Super. March 12, 2014) (en banc), the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed the issue of the allegedly improper denial of the Plaintiff’s strikes for cause during jury selection after the seating of potentially prejudiced jurors following the exhaustion of a party’s peremptory challenges.  
According to the Opinion, the jury that resulted in the Cordes case included a husband of a patient of the Defendant doctor, the daughter of a patient of the Defendant doctor, and an employee of the parent medical corporation whose subsidiary employed the Defendant doctor.  
In Cordes, Judge David N. Wecht, issued a 35 page Opinion in support of a reversal and  remand for a new trial.  Judge Wecht was joined by Judge John T. Bender, with Judge Mary Jane Bowes and President Judge Susan P. Gantman concurring in the result.
A second 16 page Opinion in support of reversal was authored by Judge Christine L. Donahue, which was joined in by President Judge Susan P. Gantman and Judge Paula F. Ott, with Judge Mary Jane Bowes again concurring in the result.   A third Opinion in this matter was a 36 page dissenting Opinion (in support of affirmance and denial of a new trial by Judge Judith F. Olson, which Opinion was joined by Judge Cheryl L. Allen.  
In his Opinion, Judge Wecht noted that the goal of jury selection was to end up with a jury with “a clean slate and an open mind.”   Wecht, J. Slip Opinion in Support of Reversal at p. 31.  
The Opinions issued in Cordes all essentially agree with the notion that an important goal of jury selection is ensure not only a jury that is impartial in fact, but one that also appears to be free from the taint of partiality to a disinterested observer.  
In the end, it was held that the trial court erred in refusing, after the exhaustion of a party’s peremptory challenges, to strike for cause those jurors who had a close relationship to a Defendant doctor and/or were employed by the same company as that doctor despite those jurors’ assurances of impartiality.  
The Superior Court Judges in favor of reversal were influenced by the fact that the mere presence of these types of jurors on the jury created an appearance of partiality or biased that should be avoided at all costs.  
As such, the defense verdict in this medical malpractice case was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.
According to the dissenting Opinion, indirect or extenuated relationships between prospective jurors and party to a case are, in and of themselves, insufficient to raise a presumption of prejudice.   The dissent felt that, in the absence of a disqualifying direct relationship with a party participant, a juror’s exclusion from service should remain within the discretionary authority of the trial court, whose decisions could be reviewed on appeal under an abuse of discretion standard.  
Anyone wishing to review Judge Wecht's Opinion in favor of Reversal may click HERE.

Judge Donohue's Opinion in favor of Reversal can be viewed HERE.

Judge Olsen's Dissenting Opinion can be viewed HERE.

To review a thorough article written by Attorney Thomas J. Foley, III of the FOLEY LAW FIRM in Scranton, PA, analyzing the Cordes decision, click the below link [reference to the article here on Tort Talk should not be deemed to suggest an endorsement by Tort Talk or Dan Cummins of Attorney Foley's article or his opinions contained therein]:

PERIL?" Available at: http://works.bepress.com/thomas_foley/1

SAVE THE DATE:  Please be reminded that Superior Court Judge David N. Wecht, author of the Opinion in Favor of Reversal in Cordes is scheduled to be a Presenter during the "View From The Bench" hour of the Tort Talk Expo 2014 set to take place on September 26, 2014 at the Mohegan Sun Casino at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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