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.