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Pinellas judge: New process may be needed to screen jurors

Published Jul. 9, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Jurors who withhold information about their own legal history have always messed up trials. If a juror withholds important facts that bias them, the losing side sometimes finds out and gets a new trial.

Now, online searches let lawyers learn about jurors with ease and root out biases before trials begin. Maybe, a Pinellas judge has declared, it's time to change the rules.

Circuit Court Judge Anthony Rondolino made his observations in April while denying a motion for a new trial in the case of an 84-year-old South Pasadena woman who fell and died in the stairwell of an assisted living facility.

Her estate asked for $15 million, but the jury found that the home bore no blame. After trial, her estate combed public records and discovered that all six jurors had failed to mention their own involvement with bankruptcies, foreclosures and other litigation — so the lawyers could not explore possible biases.

Though Florida law allows such post-verdict searches, "There was plenty of time to gather the information'' during the two-week trial, Rondolino wrote. "There was actually a three-day period when the court was recessed during which these public records could have been obtained.''

If lawyers detected potential bias, they could have challenged that juror before knowing the verdict, Rondolino wrote.

Plaintiff and defense lawyers in the case were unavailable for comment, but the estate has already appealed. Lawyers noted that Florida courts have held that even if a juror didn't intend to be untruthful, that can constitute "juror misconduct sufficient to support a motion for a new trial."

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Tom McGrady would not comment on the stairwell case but said online searches have made motions for new trials common because juror backgrounds are readily available.

"In the old days, the losing side would have to send out a private investigator and snoop around,'' McGrady said. Now, technology offers lawyers "a gotcha card. They can wait and see how the verdict stands and then pull it out.''

A big problem, said McGrady, is that lawyers and judges questioning jurors about their histories often use terms that lay people may not understand.

For instance, lawyer might ask potential jurors if they had ever been involved in litigation.

"What does that mean to them?'' McGrady said. "I do not think they are trying to hide things. I just think they do not understand what we are getting at."

The stairwell jurors were asked if they had ever been sued or had a claim made against them. One juror who had gone through bankruptcy didn't raise his hand.

"That was not litigation,'' he later told the Tampa Bay Times "We went to a bankruptcy lawyer and he handled the whole thing. We did not go in front of a judge.''

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John Mills, a Tallahassee appellate attorney, said the courts face a difficult balance in such cases.

"The losing party can be looking for a second bite at the apple,'' Mills said. "But to have a juror not telling the truth — especially if they affirmatively lied — is no good.''

In his order, Rondolino determined that missing information about jurors and litigation was not relevant enough to merit a new trial. The estate's attorneys did not pose a lot of extra questions when other potential jurors did mention bankruptcies or other litigation, Rondolino said.

In an earlier interview, estate attorney Bennie Lazzara explained that overly vigorous questioning might offend all jurors. Lawyers need to explore possible biases on a case-by-case basis without being too heavy handed, he said.

During a January hearing on the new trial motion, Rondolino came up with a possible fix: Maybe recess tough cases right after jury selection and require lawyers to run background checks and raise objections before the trial. It would be up to the appellate court to decide if such a procedure is legal, he said.

Contact Stephen Nohlgren at nohlgren@tampabay.com

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