Kochalka, the defendant challenged a final judgment entered in favor of the plaintiff
following a jury trial in an automobile negligence case. The plaintiff
sued the defendant after the defendant rear ended the plaintiff at an
ice cream drive through. The Second District reversed finding that the
trial court erred in refusing to strike a potential juror for cause.
During voir dire, two prospective jurors separately stated that prior life
experiences involving lawsuits and trial jeopardized their ability to
impartially decide the case. One of the prospective jurors said that the
judicial system failed her family when her brother was convicted of a
crime after jury trial and sentenced to 25 years. The prospective juror
said that her experience would make it hard for her to judge the case.
The prospective juror never said who she would favor because counsel said
she did not have to; but, the prospective juror did say that one side
would start out ahead of the other. At the conclusion of voir dire, the
court struck for cause the first prospective juror who indicated an inability
to impartially decide the case, but denied the defendant’s request
to strike the second prospective juror for cause. The parties moved on
with peremptory challenges. Defense counsel used his first peremptory
challenge on the second prospective juror who indicated an inability to
be impartial. Defense counsel used his remaining peremptory challenges,
and asked for an additional peremptory challenge due to the denial of
his cause challenge. The court denied the request. Defense counsel later
objected to the jury as empaneled.
The Second District noted that the test for juror competency includes both
the question whether the juror can lay aside any bias or prejudice toward
and whether the juror render a verdict based solely on the evidence presented
and the instructions on the law given by the court. When assessing those
issues, the trial court must excuse a prospective juror for cause if any
reasonable doubt exists regarding his or her ability to render an impartial
verdict. In close cases, any doubt as to a juror’s competency should
be resolved in favor of excusing the juror rather than leaving a doubt
as to his or her impartiality.
The Second District found that the prospective juror whose brother was
convicted and sentenced to 25 years failed both elements of the test,
and therefore should have been excused. First, the prospective juror raised
her hand when asked whether there was anyone who feels that one side or
the other will start out ahead based on their life experiences. The Second
District noted that the fact that the prospective juror responded was
an acknowledgement that in her mind one side was already ahead, regardless
of the fact that she didn’t identify which side was ahead. “Her
acknowledgement of bias in favor of one party – regardless of which
party it was – should have disqualified her from serving on the
jury.” Second, the prospective juror’s remarks that she had
no faith in the jury system likewise should have led to her disqualification.
The Second District stated that those remarks raised a reasonable doubt
as to whether she possessed the state of mind necessary to render an impartial
verdict based solely on the evidence submitted and the law announced at trial.
Accordingly, the Second District reversed.