May 23, 2008 in City
Judge in rollover trial questions juror
A Spokane woman accused of lying on a juror questionnaire before being selected for a jury told U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea on Thursday she “forgot about” previous civil lawsuits involving her.
Her “dishonest answers” to the court and her subsequent involvement as a juror in a multimillion-dollar product liability suit against Ford Motor Co. means plaintiff Crystal Bear, paralyzed in a Ford Bronco II rollover, didn’t get a fair trial, Bear’s attorney Richard Eymann argued.
Ford attorney Caryn Jorgensen, of Seattle, said there was no basis for a new trial because the plaintiff’s attorney had failed to prove the juror intentionally lied.
Forgetfulness, mistake or confusion do not cause the kind of juror bias that would warrant a new trial, Jorgensen argued, citing appeals court rulings.
The judge said he would rule later on whether to grant a new trial based on potential juror bias, but he denied a companion motion seeking a new trial based on the way the jury awarded damages.
Eymann filed documents showing juror Barbara Van Dyke, of Spokane, was represented by attorney Richard Leland when he worked in Eymann’s firm in 1995. A house she owned as a rental was damaged in a fire caused by a faulty television owned by the tenants.
As part of a mediated settlement of a lawsuit, Van Dyke received $1,000.
If Van Dyke had disclosed her involvement in the prior suit, “she would not have been on the jury” selected in February in U.S. District Court to hear Bear’s case against Ford, Eymann argued. He asked the court to order a new trial.
The judge took the unusual step of summoning the juror back to his courtroom more than two months after she and eight other jurors concluded that Ford and its Bronco II were not responsible for the life-altering brain and physical injuries suffered by Bear in a 1999 rollover accident in Stevens County.
Van Dyke, who works as a respiratory therapist, appeared without a lawyer, was sworn in and took the witness stand.
“I’m sure the last thing you’d want is to be back in this courtroom,” the judge told her at the outset. Van Dyke said her rental house was damaged in a 1995 fire and her tenants pursued litigation against the manufacturer of a large-screen TV, thought to be the cause. She said she met with attorneys, had a sworn deposition taken and participated in a mediation that led to her being paid $1,000.
“I was told I had to take the $1,000” after attending the mediation, she said.
“I really didn’t want to be there, because I didn’t have any interest in what they were doing,” she said.
When asked why she failed to mention that lawsuit in answering court questionnaires for the Bear trial or during individual juror questioning, Van Dyke said she simply forgot.
“I was not thinking about what happened to me personally,” she said. “I’m not going to make excuses. I just plain forgot about it.”
Eymann argued that either he or the Ford attorneys likely would have stricken Van Dyke as a potential juror if they had been told she at one time was represented by Eymann’s law firm.
“For some reason we’ll never know, she wanted to be on this jury,” Eymann told the court.
Shea said he found Van Dyke’s testimony credible and noted that she answered the court’s questions at Thursday’s hearing without an attorney being present and without taking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. He said he would read legal briefs and case rulings before deciding whether to grant a new trial.
Eymann and Bear’s legal guardian, attorney Gary Bloom, discovered Van Dyke’s involvement in the 1995 suit and other civil suits against her by the state Department of Revenue during background checks on the jurors after the panel returned its verdict.
The jury gave the 21-year-old partially paralyzed woman $115,200 for her pain, suffering and injuries. The jury also awarded Bear $5.5 million in future economic damages against her sister, who was driving the Bronco.
The award against her sister will be uncollectible, but it shows the jury saw that Bear will sustain future economic losses because of the accident, Eymann told the court, arguing disparity in the jury’s verdict.
The judge said the lawsuit, which included the plaintiff’s sister as a named defendant, was designed to get a multimillion-dollar verdict against Ford, putting the victim’s legal team in a “psychologically delicate” spot.
“There’s no basis for a new trial on liability because of disparity in the verdict,” the judge said.