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Bonnie Liedman Kochalka v. Lyndse Bourgeois, Case Nos. 2D13-75 & 2D13-4304 (2nd DCA)

In 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 the parties 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.

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