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Stairwell death trial judge seeks solution to juror silence

ST. PETERSBURG — A negligence trial in which all six jurors failed to reveal their own legal histories underscores a vexing problem during jury selection: How to probe for biases when potential jurors misunderstand legal terminology, grow weary of questioning and may turn against an overly nosy lawyer.

Pinellas Judge Anthony Rondolino is facing the possibility of redoing a two-week trial over the death of a woman who fell down stairs at an assisted living home. This week, he threw out one idea that carries both symmetry and drama. After jury selection, let lawyers on both sides run background checks. Then air any problems just before revealing the verdict.

If jurors had undisclosed legal cases that might affect their views, ask lawyers from both sides if that discovery should negate the still-unopened verdict.

"Let's put the cards on the table,'' Rondolino said.

It would work like a gambling bet. For instance, if the side that's suing seeks a new trial, they'd regret it sorely if the judge granted their wish, then opened the jury's verdict and found they would have won millions.

"Then sorry,'' Rondolino said. "You get zero.''

Of course, there would be a new trial, but the idea would keep lawyers from raising objections just because they don't like the verdict.

Lawyers for the assisted living home contend that the request for a new trial is just such a sour grapes strategem. But Rondolino made it clear either side might seek a new trial when jurors withhold information.

"There is no question, that if we had a $15 million verdict (against the home), we would still be here hearing this motion'' Rondolino said, only the home would want the new trial.

After the jury exonerated the home, lawyers discovered that the jurors, collectively, had been party to 16 civil cases they failed to mention on a form and during questioning.

Intentional or not, the omissions meant lawyers didn't know to question jurors about the cases, and possibly keep unsympathetic candidates off the jury, argued lawyer Isaac Ruiz-Carus.

Tom Valdez, representing the home, argued that most of the jurors' cases — including domestic violence disputes, a paternity case and a child support action — didn't seem relevant to whether an assisted living home might have mishandled a resident.

Besides, Valdez said, the estate's attorneys had asked vague, confusing questions and then failed to follow up with potential jurors who did mention past lawsuits. These were "strategic choices, meant to set the stage for a potential do-over in the event of an unfavorable verdict,'' the defense said in a brief.

Rondolino will rule later. But Thursday, he spent at least a half hour pondering how such messes could be avoided.

Courts consider a juror's own legal history so important that a questionnaire asks all potential jurors if they or a family member has been involved in a lawsuit.

Typically, lawyers question 30 or so potential jurors in order to pick six. Each side gets to pick a few they want off the jury.

Bennie Lazzara, representing the estate, said he circles in red the names of everyone on the jury panel who indicate they have been party to a lawsuit. He wants to gauge their feelings about that experience.

The legal bar is high for getting a new trial based on withheld juror information. Lawyers must convince the judge that they diligently tried to get the missing facts. Yet prolonged, aggressive probing can anger the entire jury panel and kill the client's case.

Three jurors in the stairwell case told the Tampa Bay Times that they simply did not understand legal terms used in questioning. For instance, a Seminole resident went through bankruptcy, "but that was not litigation,'' he said. "We did not go in front of a judge or anything.''

That all six jurors failed to disclose legal histories proves that plaintiffs just mishandled the questioning, Valdez argued. If Rondolino agrees, no new trial.

In the brief, Valdez's side raised another issue — in an age of high-speed Internet access, why couldn't the estate quickly check out the prospect jurors?

"Plaintiff's counsel had multiple attorneys and paralegals in the courtroom during jury selections and had wireless Internet access in the courtroom throughout the trial,'' the defense brief said. Juror legal history "could easily have been located.''

Not so fast, said Isaac Ruiz-Carus. When he ran the background checks after the verdict, Pinellas County's online database malfunctioned. He had to drive to the courthouse and gather information the old-fashioned way.

Plowing through paper.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at nohlgren@tampabay.com.

Stairwell death trial judge seeks solution to juror silence 01/31/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 10:26pm]

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