Sunday, October 30, 2016

Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center

Opinion handed down September 20, 2016

            In Smotherman v. Cass Regional Medical Center, the Supreme Court of Missouri addressed the issue of whether a juror’s testimony regarding the extent to which misconduct affected jury deliberations is sufficient to overcome the presumption of prejudice created by the misconduct.[1]  As discussed below, the court’s decision represents a step back from recent decisions that attempted to clarify the extrinsic evidence exemption to the Mansfield Rule and ignores past decisions regarding the weight that should be assigned to such testimony.  

I.  Facts and Holding

            The original issue in Smotherman  involved an injury the plaintiff suffered after she slipped and fell in a bathroom on the defendant’s premises.[2]  The plaintiff alleged that the cause of her fall was the position of a soap dispenser, which had leaked soap onto the floor.[3]  The case was tried before a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the defendant.[4]  The ultimate controversy arose after plaintiff’s counsel discovered after the trial, one of the jurors, during deliberations, had used the Internet to find out what the weather forecast was for the day the plaintiff slipped and fell.[5]  Because the juror found that there was significant snowfall on the date of the injury, he decided that the soap was not the cause of the plaintiff’s fall and that the fall was instead likely caused by melted snow on the floor of the bathroom.[6]  This evidence was not introduced in any way by either party during the trial.[7]  While other jurors remembered a comment being made during deliberations regarding the snow, they testified that the weather was “immaterial to their deliberations.”[8]
Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial based on the juror’s misconduct.[9]  The motion was overruled.[10]  Ultimately, the issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred in overruling the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial on the grounds that the jury engaged in misconduct.

II.  Legal Background
            Under Missouri law, a juror’s testimony about juror misconduct is “generally not admissible to impeach the jury’s verdict.”[11]  This is referred to as the Mansfield Rule.[12]  The Mansfield Rule, as originally applied, prevented jurors from impeaching their own verdicts.[13]  The rule was adopted as a result of courts being untrusting of jurors who would testify about their own misconduct.[14]
The history of the rule as interpreted by Missouri courts has been criticized as being “unclear and often inconsistent.”[15]  Originally, a qualified version of the rule was adopted in jurors’ affidavits to explain extrinsic evidence showing juror misconduct, and it was admissible only in cases where life and liberty were at stake.[16]  Later, courts moved away from this version of the rule in favor of a strict application of the rule, prohibiting jurors from impeaching their verdicts in all types of cases.[17]
Even later, Missouri courts began to liberalize the Mansfield Rule and adopted certain exceptions to the rule.[18]  For example, the courts began applying the “extraneous evidence” exception, which allowed a juror to testify regarding whether a juror had gathered evidence on his or her own or had related that information to other jurors.[19]  This rule was clarified in the Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision Travis v. Stone,[20] in which the court held that once a juror establishes through testimony that he or she engaged in misconduct by relying on extrinsic evidence, the burden shifts to the opposing party to prove that no actual prejudice resulted from the misconduct.[21]
            Under the exception as it applies today, even if it can be proved that a juror committed misconduct by engaging in extraneous research, such a finding does not automatically entitle a moving party to a new trial.[22]  Rather, such a finding merely can raise a presumption of prejudice.[23]  The burden then shifts to the opposing party to rebut that presumption.[24]  In order to be prejudicial, the extraneous evidence that was obtained by the juror who committed the misconduct must be “material to the consequential facts of the case.”[25]

III.  Instant Decision

            In this case, the trial court held that the conduct of the juror who engaged in extraneous research was sufficient to raise a presumption of prejudice.[26]  However, the court ultimately found that this presumption was effectively rebutted by the testimony of eight jurors, who stated that the extraneous research did not affect their verdict.[27] 
The Supreme Court of Missouri, while stating that “every party is entitled to a fair trial, as a practical matter, our jury system cannot guarantee every party a perfect trial,”[28] ultimately held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the defendant successfully rebutted the presumption of prejudice caused by the juror’s misconduct.[29] 
IV.  Comment
As the dissent explains in Smotherman, the exception to the Mansfield Rule, as recognized and clarified by Travis, stems from the “recognition that a juror’s independent factual research is uniquely prejudicial.”[30]  The decision in Travis has been described as one in a line of cases that expanded the exception to the Mansfield Rule in Missouri.[31]  By upholding the trial court’s decision that the affidavits of other jurors can overcome the prejudice created by a juror engaging in extraneous research, the majority’s decision in Smotherman represents a step back from the rule as outlined by Travis.
In Travis, the court reversed the denial of a motion for a new trial after a single juror acquired extraneous information; the juror did not share that information with the rest of the jury.[32]  The court held that even though the offending juror testified that the information did not influence her decision, the independent research was prejudicial due to the subtle or even subconscious affect that the information may have had on the juror, without the juror being aware of the prejudicial affect.[33]
The majority in Smotherman distinguished the case from Travis by arguing that, unlike in Travis, all nine jurors testified or submitted affidavits, stating that the extra information did not influence their deliberations, whereas in Travis, only the offending juror testified that it did not.[34] However, this argument ignores the principle outlined in Travis.  The reason that independent factual research is uniquely prejudicial is because it may change a juror’s mind in such a way that the juror may not even be aware of it.  Particularly in this case, the information that it was snowing on the day that the plaintiff fell in the bathroom may have subconsciously convinced the offending juror, or the rest of the jurors, that the fall was not the fault of the defendant, even though the juror testified that it did not actually change his mind.
The majority’s reasoning in this way accepts the offending juror’s own later testimony, minimizing the effect of his misconduct as probative.  This is problematic not only for the reasons discussed in Middleton,[35] in which the court held that jurors have a tendency to minimize the effect of their own misconduct,[36] but also for the reasoning established above.  If jurors are not aware of the degree to which outside evidence may have affected their verdict, then their own testimony regarding the degree to which their misconduct affected their verdict has little, if any, probative value.  Thus, the majority’s decision not only ignores the likelihood that a juror will underestimate the extent of his or her own misconduct, but it also represents a step away from previous decisions regarding what weight should be given to the testimony of a juror who commits misconduct.
- Brandon Wood.

[1] Smotherman v. Cass Reg’l Med. Ctr., No. SC 95464, 2016 WL 5109891, at *1 (Mo. Sept. 20, 2016) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id. at *2.
[4] Id. at *1.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at *2.
[7] Id. at *1.
[8] Id. at  *2.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at *3.
[12] Id.
[13] Jason R. Mudd, Note, Liberalizing the Mansfield Rule in Missouri: Making Sense of the Extraneous Evidence Exception After Travis v. Stone, 69 Mo. L. Rev. 779, 779 (2004).
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Pratte v. Coffman, 33 Mo. 71, 78 (1862).
[17] State v. Branstetter, 65 Mo. 149, 15657 (1877).
[18] Mudd, supra note 13, at 787.
[19] Stotts v. Meyer, 822 S.W.2d 887, 890 (Mo. Ct. App. 1991).
[20] 66 S.W.3d 1 (Mo. 2002) (en banc) (per curiam).
[21] Id. at *3.
[22] State v. Stephens, 88 S.W.3d 876, 883 (Mo. Ct. App. 2002).
[23] Travis, 66 S.W.3d at 4.
[24] Id.
[25] Stephens, 88 S.W.3d at 88384.
[26] Smotherman v. Cass Reg’l Med. Ctr., No. SC 95464, 2016 WL 5109891, at *4 (Mo. Sept. 20, 2016) (en banc).
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at *1 (quoting Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Inst., P.C., 304 S.W.3d 81, 87 (Mo. 2010) (en banc)).
[29] Id.
[30] Id. at *4 (Teitelman, J., dissenting).
[31] See Mudd, supra note 13, at 788–89.
[32] Travis v. Stone, 66 S.W.3d 1, *3–4 (Mo. 2002) (en banc) (per curiam).
[33] Id. at *5.
[34] Smotherman, 2016 WL 5109891, at *4.
[35] Middleton v. Kan. City Pub. Serv. Co., 152 S.W.2d 154, 160 (Mo. 1941).
[36] Id. at 160.