The recent Delaware Superior Court opinion in the case of DeSantis v. Gardiner, N18C-01-304 WCC discusses Delaware’s long standing recognition of the sanctity of jury deliberations.
In the DeSantis case, after a three day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict awarding substantial damages to the Plaintiff. The action brought by the Plaintiff had sought damages from the Defendant for personal injuries caused when the Defendant’s car collided with Plaintiff’s motorcycle. The Plaintiff suffered serious injuries as a result of the collision requiring long periods of in-patient hospital treatment, several hospitalizations, and multiple surgeries. The Defendant however claimed that the Plaintiff was also negligent in a manner that contributed to the cause of the accident. Thus at trial, the defense argued that some degree of fault should be assigned to the Plaintiff, which would then limit or bar Plaintiff’s recovery.
Following the three day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding the Defendant to be 100% at fault for the collision and awarding over one million dollars in damages to the Plaintiff. What happened next though was an intriguing set of events.
The morning after the jury verdict was delivered, one of the jurors contacted the defense attorney and left a voicemail stating her opinion that several of the jurors had not properly understood the jury instructions given to them by the judge and in her opinion five of the jurors felt a degree of fault should have been assigned to the Plaintiff.
As I briefly mentioned above, a degree of fault assigned to a Plaintiff has a significant impact on the Plaintiff’s award. Delaware is a 50/50 comparative negligence state, which means that a Plaintiff may receive an award in a personal injury case even if the Plaintiff was also negligent in contributing toward the personal injures but only if the Plaintiff’s negligence is 50% or less. When the defense argues that the Plaintiff was also negligent in contributing to his injuries, the jury is asked to assign percentages of fault to the Plaintiff and the Defendant. If the jury agrees with the Defendant that the Plaintiff was also at fault, the jury assigns a percentage of fault to the Plaintiff and a percentage of fault to the Defendant, and the Plaintiff’s damages are reduced by the percentage of fault assigned by the jury to the Plaintiff. If the jury assigns a degree of fault to the Plaintiff that is above 50%, Plaintiff does not receive an award.
In the DeSantis case, when the jury delivered their verdict, they assigned 100% fault to the Defendant and no fault to the Plaintiff. This meant the Plaintiff received the entire amount of the damages that the jury attributed to the incident without any reduction. The phone call by the juror to the defense attorney on the day after the verdict was read was to explain that the juror thought five of the jurors believe a degree of fault should have been assigned to the Plaintiff, which would have reduced his recovery. The juror called the defense attorney a second time and also called the Court several times to reiterate her belief that there was a misunderstanding by several of the jurors, including herself, about assigning a degree of fault to the Plaintiff.
Based upon what the juror had relayed, the defense filed a motion for a new trial since the jurors misunderstood the comparative negligence law. The Plaintiff opposed the motion arguing that the issues raised by the juror were “intrinsic to the jury’s deliberations”, and therefore, they could not be considered by the Court. The Court agreed with the Plaintiff’s position and denied the defense’s motion for a new trial.
There is a long standing principle that precludes Delaware courts from inquiring into jury deliberations and recognizes the sanctity of jury deliberations. These principles are recognized in Delaware Rule of Evidence 606, which prohibits a juror from testifying about any statements made during the deliberations or any incident that occurred during deliberations. The statements, incidents, intimidation among jurors, and thought-processes that occur during deliberations are referred to as “intrinsic”, and jurors are prohibited from testifying as to the intrinsic factors.
The rule, however, does not bar a juror from testifying as to extrinsic factors. The extrinsic factors are outside factors that improperly influence a juror and outside prejudicial information told to or shown to jurors. Outside factors can be inquired into by the Court if brought to the Court’s attention.
In the end, the Court found that the juror’s complaints about misunderstanding of the instructions and law was intrinsic to the jury deliberations and “was precisely the type of post-verdict inquiry that Rule 606 expressly prohibits.”
The Court’s opinion in DeSantis also mentions that during the deliberations there were no questions to the Court that signaled any misunderstanding of the jury instructions or law. Once the jury instructions are read to the jury and the jury goes to deliberate, if questions arise regarding the the law or evidence, the jury can write a question, which will be given to the Judge. The Judge will discuss the question with the attorneys, and the Judge will respond to the jury’s questions and then the jury will be sent back to deliberate more. If there had been questions among some of the jurors regarding the instructions or applicable law, a written question to the Court would have been the appropriate step to address the questions.