The Appellate Division reversed an $876,000 personal injury verdict today in Barber v. ShopRite because, among other reasons, State Senator Robert Martin’s presence on the jury resulted in an irregular influence on other jurors. The plaintiff suffered a serious neck injury after slipping and falling in a ShopRite supermarket and was awarded $876,000 in compensation for her injuries.
During voir dire, Senator Martin disclosed that he was a New Jersey State Senator, a full-time professor of law, and a practicing lawyer. Nevertheless, neither the attorney for the plaintiff nor the attorney for the defendant objected to Senator Martin as a juror. Senator Martin was empanelled on the jury and made foreman.
After the trial concluded, Senator Martin wrote an article in the New Jersey Law Journal describing his experiences as a juror. Senator Martin reported in the article that, during the course of deliberations, other jurors relied on him to explain abstract legal concepts such as “proximate cause.” The Senator also stated in the article that “I am convinced that in our case my opinions swayed other jurors and were extremely influential in the final outcome.” After Senator Martin and other jurors were called in for a hearing to determine whether the Senator exerted any undue influence on the jury, Senator Martin testified that he overstated his influence on the jury in the article. However, some of the other jurors testified that they were influenced by Senator Martin, and one juror testified that she felt that she did not render an impartial verdict.
The Appellate Division examined the law related to jury irregularities and noted that a new trial should be granted if the “irregular matters” “could have a tendency to influence the jury in arriving at its verdict in a manner inconsistent with the legal proofs and the court’s charge.” The Court further noted that the test is not whether the “irregular matter” did actually influence the jury, but whether they could have influenced the jury. Given the facts that all of the jurors knew that Martin was a Senator and a lawyer, several commented that he was particularly influential in the discussion on damages (Martin proposed the dollar amount that was eventually awarded by the jury), and jurors relied on Martin to explain abstract legal concepts rather than asking the Court to explain, the Appellate Division decided to remand the case for a new trial.
Contributing to the Court’s decision to remand the case were also several inappropriate comments made by the plaintiff’s lawyer during the trial. The plaintiff’s lawyer improperly hinted to the jury that certain business records were not produced to the plaintiff because the defendant had hidden those records. However, the plaintiff did not establish that those records actually existed. The plaintiff’s lawyer also made comments during closing arguments that certain products were present in the aisle where plaintiff slipped without having established a foundation during the trial.
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