Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Important Voir Dire Issues Revisited by Pennsylvania Superior Court

Jury selection issues were again reviewed by the Pennsylvania Appellate Courts in the case of Shinal v. Toms, No. 1714 MDA 2014, 2015 Pa. Super. 178 (Pa. Super. Aug. 25, 2015 Allen, J., Lazarus, J., and Platt, J.)(Opinion by Platt, J.). According to the Court’s Opinion in this medical malpractice case, the Plaintiffs filed an appeal following a defense verdict of no liability on the issue of informed consent. Among the challenges on appeal was the Plaintiff’s challenge to the denial of their Motion to Strike certain prospective jurors for cause. 

The Opinion noted that, at an initial trial in February of 2013, the trial court and the parties attempted unsuccessfully to impanel a jury. According to the Opinion, the trial court was unable to impanel a jury as too many of the prospective jurors were dismissed because they were either employed or treated or insured by one of the Defendant medical entities (Geisinger). As such, the trial was continued to a later date.

In the interim, the Geisinger Defendants were dismissed by way of summary judgment, and a Dr. Toms was the only remaining Defendant when the case came back to trial for a second round of jury selection.

According to Superior Court’s Opinion in this Shinal case, the trial court had endeavored to implement what the trial court perceived to the principles enunciated in the case of Cordes v. Assocs. of Internal Medicine, 87 A.3d 829, 833-34 (Pa. Super. 2014) (en banc) (plurality opinion), appeal denied, 102 A.3d 986 (Pa. 2014).

In this regard, during voir dire, the Plaintiffs were permitted to question each prospective juror whether they were an employee of any Geisinger entity, or if a relative was employed by a Geisinger entity, and whether or not those persons (the jurors) perceived themselves to be employed by the same company as the remaining Defendant, Dr. Toms, who was affiliated with Geisinger. If the jurors responded affirmatively, the jurors were asked if they believed or perceived that a verdict against Dr. Toms would have a negative financial impact on their employer.

The Superior Court also permitted the Plaintiff to ask the jurors if they, or a relative, had ever been treated as a patient at Geisinger and, if so, whether they received a favorable result with that treatment.

The Superior Court also noted that the trial court allowed the jurors to be questioned overall on whether they could render a fair and impartial verdict in the case presented. According to the Opinion, all of the prospect jurors indicated they could be fair and impartial.

On appeal, the Plaintiff raised issued with respect to four (4) prospective jurors. In the Shinal Opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed the issues raised with respect to each of these jurors, all of whom had previously worked, or continued to work, for a Geisinger entity in one capacity or other.

The Shinal court noted that none of these jurors at issue knew the Defendant, Dr. Toms, personally, had worked with him, or had been treated by him.

The trial court had denied Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss these four (4) jurors. The Plaintiff ended up using four (4) of their peremptories challenges and excluded those prospective jurors from the jury.

On appeal, the Plaintiffs argued, in part, among several issues, that the trial court erred in not striking the jurors at issue for cause, thereby requiring the Plaintiff utilize their peremptory challenges which they could have arguably used to strike other jurors.

The Shinal court disagreed with the Plaintiff’s contentions that the trial court had erred in this regard. In so ruling, the Shinal court set forth the well-settled standard of review of a court’s decision not to strike a potential juror for cause. This can be reviewed at page 13-15 of the Superior Court’s Opinion which can be read at the link below.

Concisely, the Superior Court in Shinal found no evidence to support a claim that any direct relationship existed between the Defendant, Dr. Toms, and the prospective jurors.

The court also rejected the Plaintiff’s contention that the prospective jurors should have been stricken because of an indirect relationship with the Defendant, Dr. Toms through the jurors’ own relationship with the Geisinger entity.

In ruling in this regard, the Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that both the Plaintiff and the trial court relied heavily upon the Cordes Opinion. However, the court in Shinal stated that "Cordes is a plurality opinion" and that "[a] plurality opinion is not binding precedent." See Shinal at p. 15.

Overall, the Shinal court found that its independent review of the record confirmed that none of the challenged prospective jurors had such a close relationship with participants in the litigation on which prejudice should have been presumed. The Shinal court rejected any reliance on Cordes in an attempt to expand the range of relationships from which prejudice must be presumed in the context of jury selection.

The Shinal court reiterated the principle of law that it is the trial court judge who is in the best position to assess the credibility of a juror and determine if that juror is able to render a fair and impartial verdict.

Accordingly, the Shinal court rejected this portion of the Plaintiff’s appeal from the trial as the appellate court found no evidence that any of the prospective jurors had any direct close relationship with any of the parties or that they should have been stricken for cause as being presumptively prejudiced, biased, or impartial.

Anyone wishing to review this decision, may click this LINK.

UPDATE:  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court's decision in this case at 162 A.3d 429 (Pa. 2017).

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