Thursday, June 11, 2020

Computer Glitch With Jury Questionnaires Leads Court to Overturn $800,000 Jury Verdict


In the case of Escalante v. State Farm, No. 3746-Civil-2018 (C.P. Monroe Co. June 2, 2020 Sibum, .J), the trial court vacated an $800,000.00 verdict in favor of the Plaintiff in a UIM case after finding that a computer glitch may have affected jury questionnaires that the attorneys used to select the jury. 

According to the Opinion, the glitch was not detected until after the jury handling the Escalante case handed down their verdict. The court noted that the potentially problematic jury questionnaires were destroyed in accordance with state law and there was no way to tell how severely the court’s computer glitch may have affected the trial. As such, the court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that the verdict should be allowed to stand, in part, because the defense did not raise the issue in a timely fashion.

The Opinion noted that this was a court wide issue that also affected other matters, including leading to three (3) mistrials in criminal cases.

The glitch involved a transcription error that occurred when the court upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 10 before the trial term. The glitch made it such that corresponding questions and answers on the jury’s questionnaire would appear out of alignment when printed.

According to the Opinion, the defense had filed post-trial motions prior to the court being notified of the computer glitch. Thereafter, during an argument session on the post-trial motions, the court advised the parties about the glitch and allowed for additional briefing.

Shortly thereafter, the defense filed a second post-trial motion, citing the jury selection error. Part of the Plaintiffs’ argument was that State Farm should have raised the issue earlier as the glitch, and the three (3) criminal court mistrials had been reported in the local media.

As noted, Judge Sibum rejected the Plaintiff’s waiver argument. The court found that it would further the interests of “fundamental fairness” for the court to consider all of the defense post-trial motions.

The court also rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that any jury selection questionnaire issues should be considered to have been waived since the defense was given an opportunity to ask any questions at voir dire that would have revealed any problems with the jurors.

The court ruled that a jury questionnaire are intended to be a tool for the court and the parties to facilitate and expedite the voir dire process. To accept the Plaintiff’s argument would render the purpose of juror questionnaires “pointless.” As such, this argument was not accepted by the court.

In the end, the trial court ordered this UIM matter to be retried.

In an article by Max Mitchell from the Pennsylvania Law Weekly, entitled “Court Axes $800K UIM Verdict After Computer Glitch Affects Juror Questioning,” which is the source of the tip on this case, the Plaintiffs were noted to voice an intention to appeal the trial court's decision to the Superior Court and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

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