When are a judge’s ex parte remarks to a jury so prejudicial that the plaintiff or defendant must be granted a new trial?
Jury trials can be risky for both plaintiffs and defendants, filled with unexpected pitfalls. They can also be treacherous terrain for the judge. In a recent New Jersey personal injury lawsuit, a trial judge’s offhand remark to a deadlocked jury was considered so serious an error that the appellate division threw out the unanimous verdict and ordered a new trial.
A Motor Vehicle Accident Case Leaves a Jury Divided
The lawsuit involved a motor vehicle accident in which the plaintiff’s van was struck from behind. The plaintiff went to the hospital a few days later complaining of memory loss, cognitive difficulties, and other problems that, she claimed, left her unable to work. At trial, experts for the plaintiff testified that the crash had caused a mild traumatic brain injury, while defense experts disagreed.
In deliberations, jurors leaned toward the defense by a vote of 4 to 2. The Middlesex County Superior Court judge told them they would need to reach a 5 to 1 or unanimous verdict. When the jurors said they were not close, he dismissed them for the day
A Brief Comment by the Judge Suddenly Ends the Deadlock
The next day, they resumed deliberating. During a brief ex parte visit from the judge, one juror asked what would happen if they were unable to reach agreement. The judge said they would need to deliberate for three days before he could declare a mistrial. One hour later, the seemingly deadlocked jury announced a unanimous verdict for the defendant.
The plaintiff’s attorney moved for a new trial because of the judge’s comments, which had been made in the absence of either plaintiff’s or defendant’s counsel (though all agreed he had made them). The trial judge rejected the motion, saying that he had a duty to advise the jury, that his ex parte comments were not improper, and that there was no reversible error.
Judge’s Comment Prejudiced the Jury
The appellate court disagreed and ordered a new trial. The extremely speedy resolution of the jurors’ differences, just one hour after learning they would have to deliberate for three days if they did not reach a verdict, created a presumption that the judge had prejudiced the outcome.
The court relied on a 2014 New Jersey Supreme Court case holding that a new trial is required if the record shows that the jury was prejudiced by ex parte comments or if it is unclear whether there was prejudice.
Attorneys Must Be Vigilant to Ensure a Fair Trial
The case offers numerous lessons for all participants in a civil lawsuit, including the judge and counsel. Perhaps the most important is the need for attorneys to notice and object to prejudicial conduct, including conduct outside their presence. If you are considering litigation over a personal injury, business dispute, or any other cause of action, the first step is to find counsel with experience in New Jersey civil practice and a track record of vigorously fighting for clients’ interests.