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Impeaching Jury Verdicts
Test yourself on the issue of whether jurors can impeach their verdicts by affidavits exhibited to motions for new trial.
Ms. James was driving her employer’s vehicle in Chattanooga when hit head on by Ms. Swindell’s vehicle. The verdict was rather low for the injuries suffered. A juror swore posttrial that he assumed Ms. James recovered workers’ compensation and that he was unaware of subrogation law. See James v. Swindell (Tenn. Ct. App., E.S., Goddard, Aug. 23, 2000), no appl. perm. app.
Ms. Gaines was injured in a Sevier County vehicle collision with Ms. Tenney’s car. Again the verdict was low. A female juror swore that she caved and voted with the other 11 only because a male juror intimidated her. He cussed her out and “leaned across the table at me and then threw paper at me.” See Gaines v. Tenney (Tenn. Ct. App., E.S., McClarty, Jan. 21, 2010), no appl. perm. app.
Question: Should the trial judges have granted motions for new trial in either or both of these cases? Answer: No.
Why? Because Tennessee Rule of Evidence 606(b) wisely excludes most attacks on verdicts by juror impeachment. If that were not so, few verdicts would survive and litigants would be forced to endure retrial after retrial.
The rule reads: “A juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury’s deliberations.” Nor may a juror testify “to the effect of anything upon any juror’s mind or emotions as influencing that juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict.” Finally, a juror may not testify concerning “the juror’s mental processes.”
Three exceptions exist: The first permits a juror affidavit that “extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention.” That would include one juror taking an unauthorized view of an accident scene and reporting to the others. The second covers improper outside influence, such as a bribe. The third, which we have in state but not federal jurisprudence, allows evidence of a quotient or gambling verdict if the jurors agreed in advance to be bound and if there was no further discussion.
I believe you agree with me that no exception applies to the two cases we considered. Unfortunately two good trial judges erroneously granted new trials, all for naught. On appeal the original verdicts were reinstated.
For collections of appellate opinions see Ward on Tennessee Criminal Trial Practice at §27:7, Pivnick on Tennessee Circuit Court Practice at §26:9, and Tennessee Law of Evidence at §6.06.
Erratum: Judge Charles Nearn, a retired jurist I admire, called about my February column on “Writ of Error Corum Nobis.” He opined that the writ remains a remedy in a General Sessions Court civil case, and he is correct. Although Tenn. Code. Ann. §27-7-101 is “obsolete” in Circuit and Chancery, it continues to apply “in a civil case not governed by the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.”
Donald F. Paine is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.