U.S. justices mull propriety of recalling discharged jury to duty

WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday wrestled with the question of under what circumstances judges can recall jurors to duty after they have rendered a verdict, in a case involving a man seeking damages after suffering injuries in a Montana car accident.

The justices, during an hour of arguments, indicated that a gap of just a few minutes in which there is no opportunity for jurors to be exposed to any information that could prejudice their views of the case may be permissible.

That would mean North Dakota man Rocky Dietz, who sued a man named Hillary Bouldin for negligence after the 2009 accident in the city of Bozeman, would lose his bid for a new trial.

Bouldin ran a red light and his vehicle hit the passenger side of Dietz’s vehicle. Bouldin admitted he was responsible for the collision.

The jury initially awarded Dietz nothing. But the judge recalled the jurors within minutes after they had been discharged from duty, reminding them that Bouldin’s lawyers had earlier stipulated Dietz was due at least $10,000 to cover medical expenses already incurred.

The jury subsequently awarded $15,000 to Dietz. Dietz’s lawyers objected to the judge’s action to recall the jury, contending that the fact that the jurors initially had awarded him no money indicated they were not fair and impartial toward him.

The justices sought clarity on the outer boundaries of what could be permissible in recalling a jury, such as the amount of time the jury was discharged or whether jurors had a chance to leave the courthouse before being recalled.

Questions from justices including Chief Justice John Roberts indicated their greatest concern was to ensure jurors would not be exposed to prejudicial information after being discharged.

“Why doesn’t it make sense to say, well, if they’re right out in the hall … bring them back in and ask, just as the judge did here, ‘Have you talked to anybody about the case?'” Roberts asked.

Justice Stephen Breyer said if there are no signs of prejudice, it would be more efficient to recall the jurors rather than conduct a new trial with a different jury.

“Now, if it saves a lot of money, and that’s the only difference, why don’t we say the efficiency argument is what counts?” Breyer asked.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a former trial judge, noted that immediately after some trials juries can be exposed to prejudicial remarks, including expressions of emotion from family members and comments from court staff.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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