How Far is Too Far? Presuming Juror Prejudice Based on Situational Relationships with Litigants

12.30.15

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently considered the extent to which a potential juror's "situational relationship" with a litigant should preclude the person from being empaneled. In Shinal v. Toms, 2015 Pa. Super. 178 (Pa. Super. 2015), the Court reconsidered its holding in Cordes v. Assocs. of Internal Med., 87 A.3d 829, 833-34 (Pa. Super. 2014) (en banc) (plurality opinion), appeal denied, 102 A.3d 986 (Pa. 2014), and returned a decision which severely limited the plurality opinion of Cordes.

In Cordes, the Superior Court considered the plaintiff-appellant's appeal after judgment was entered in favor of the defendant-appellees, with the appellant claiming that the trial court had abused its discretion during the jury selection process by denying her challenges for cause with regard to three potential jurors, each of whom she claimed had a "close relationship" with the appellant. Specifically, (1) one juror was an employee of the hospital that also employed the defendant-appellee doctor; (2) the second juror's parents treated with the doctor; and (3) the third juror's wife also treated with the doctor. While each indicated that they did not know the doctor personally and could render a fair and impartial verdict even with such relationships, the Superior Court remanded the case for a new trial, though there was no single opinion from the court providing the reasoning for this decision.

However, in Shinal, the court rejected the plaintiff's claim on appeal that the trial court erred by denying its motions to strike certain prospective jurors for cause, finding that the court's independent review 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. In that case, the jurors included (1) a woman who was an administrative secretary at the hospital's sleep lab; (2) a man whose wife worked as an administrative assistant in the hospital's pediatrics department; (3) a customer service representative for the hospital's health plan; and (4) a retired physician's assistant who had previously worked at the hospital, but in a different department than the physician-defendant, who was a brain surgeon. None of the potential jurors knew the physician or were treated by him, and all said that they could render a fair and impartial verdict.

The Shinal court specifically held that Cordes, a plurality opinion, was not binding precedent, since the judges did not agree on the reason for the result. Furthermore, the court's independent review confirmed that none of the challenged prospective jurors had a close relationship with the participants in the litigation such that prejudice would be presumed. Instead, the court found that the plaintiffs relied on real or perceived relationships with one or another of the clinic's entities, even though by the time of the second jury selection, no clinic unit was any longer a party to the litigation. Specifically, the court emphasized that the appellants failed to establish that any of the jurors had a direct close familial, financial or situational relationship with either the parties, counsel, or witnesses, such that the trial court could presume the likelihood of prejudice. It noted that none knew the doctor personally, had ever worked for him, had been tr eated by him as a patient, or were an employer-employee relationship with him. Rather, the court described plaintiffs' assertions to be "indirect, and mostly attenuated, largely contradicted by the prospective jurors and impermissibly dependent on supposition and facts not in evidence, and often they were transparently speculative." (Shinal at 1077). The court construed the plaintiffs' appeal as asking to expand the range of relationships requiring a presumption of per se prejudice in such cases of "real or perceived relationships" with entities of the hospital, and refused to do so.

Comment: This binding Pennsylvania Superior Court case severely limits the holding in Cordes and emphasizes the line between those relationships which may disqualify potential jurors from being empaneled, and those relationships which do not rise to a level to warrant a presumption of per se prejudice. It is certainly a victory for the defense bar as it emphasizes that indirect, attenuated relationships will not be considered to be grounds for striking potential jurors. Further, Shinal should aid in the selection of a fair and impartial jury without giving the plaintiff extremely wide latitude in dismissing, for cause, jurors with no actual direct relationship with a named defendant, counsel or witnesses. Instead, it requires an actual showing a direct relationship (financial, familial or situational) between a prospective juror and the parties, counsel or witnesses so as to evidence a likelihood of actual prejudice.

For more information, please contact Noah E. Katz at nkatz@wglaw.com or 570.961.2706 

Media Contacts

Lexi Burchmore
267.295.3377
lburchmore@wglaw.com

back to top