Jury neutrality is a cornerstone principle of American jurisprudence. Accordingly, prior to trial, litigants are entitled to question jurors about a variety of topics that may weigh on each prospective juror’s ability to render judgment in a fair manner. In auto accident cases, specifically, jurors are typically questioned about various issues, including their relationship with the parties and previous driving and litigation histories. Although such questioning does not often lead to disqualification, a failure to permit a sufficient inquiry can lead to the rejection of the jury’s ultimate verdict. For instance, in a recent decision, Mordecai v. Cain, the Georgia Court of Appeals vacated a jury’s ruling in an auto accident dispute because the trial court failed to allow particular questioning regarding the prospective jurors’ relationships to a non-party auto insurer.
Mordecai started with an auto accident caused by the defendant, who was driving in the wrong direction on a local roadway when his vehicle collided with the car being operated by the plaintiff. Prior to trial, the defendant and the plaintiff’s uninsured motorist provider moved to exclude all questions related to the prospective jurors’ relationships with the insurance provider unless a juror stated when asked about employment that he or she was currently employed by an insurance company. Alternatively, they argued that if jurors were to be questioned about their relationships with the insurance company, it should be done in the jury assembly area prior to trial. The trial court concurred with the defendant and auto insurer and allowed questions regarding connections to the auto insurer to only be performed by a jury assembly administrator. The administrator testified that she asked the prospective jurors if they were “an officer, employee, stockholder, agent, director or policyholder of State Farm Automobile Mutual Insurance Holding” and that all prospective jurors who answered “yes” were excluded from the panel ultimately sent to the court for voir dire. The case proceeded to trial, after which a verdict was rendered. Finding the judgment unsatisfactory, the plaintiff appealed, arguing, among other things, that the trial court’s preclusion of in-court questioning about the jurors’ connection to State Farm was reversible error.
It is well settled that parties have the “the right to a panel of impartial . . . jurors from which to select the trial jury.” Lewis v. Emory Univ., 235 Ga. App. 811, 813-14 (1998). To this end, “a party to a civil case is entitled to have the jury qualified by the court as to any insurance carrier with a financial interest in the case,” Ford Motor Co. v. Conley, 294 Ga. 530, 550 (2014), for even when the insurer may not be a direct party to the action, a relationship with a non-party insurer with a pecuniary interest may sway a putative juror’s vote. Although the trial court in this case used an alternate procedure for checking whether prospective jurors had such a disqualifying relationship, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that such a modified procedure is impermissible when, as is the case here, a party requests that qualification be done during voir dire and in open court. Indeed, as a result of the application of this modified pre-qualification procedure, the plaintiff’s counsel was limited in the ability to examine the full scope of the prospective jurors’ relationships with the insurer. After determining that the plaintiff’s counsel had preserved the issue for trial, the Court of Appeal found that the failure to properly qualify the prospective jurors required that there be a new trial. See Conley, 294 Ga. at 556.
Although the plaintiff will now have a chance at proving the case to a properly qualified jury, the time and expense of having a second trial will likely cut into the ultimate recovery. Indeed, it is in a litigant’s interest to get things right on the first occasion, and those with potentially meritorious claims should consult counsel experienced in trial court litigation. The Atlanta car accident attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have represented many Georgia drivers, and they are ready to provide assistance with a potential claim. If you’ve recently been injured in a possible case of motor vehicle negligence and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a free case evaluation.