That interweb thingy in South Dakota jury rooms

Think the recent news about jurors using Twitter and Google during trials is limited to more populated areas? Think again. Next week the South Dakota Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case where a new trial was granted because of a juror’s use of Google before the trial even started.

The case involves a lawsuit against Takata Corp., a Japanese corporation, and TK Holdings, its American subsidiary. The plaintiffs claim seat belts manufactured by Takata unlatched during a rollover accident. When a potential juror received his summons for jury duty, he “Googled” the two companies because he’d never heard of them. He found their home pages and learned Takata made seat belts and airbags and that TK was the American subsidiary.

During jury selection, the juror was not asked directly if he knew about Takata and he didn’t volunteer information about his Google searches. He ended up on the jury and, according to a summary of the case,

Three-quarters of the way through six hours of deliberations [the juror] responded to a question about whether Takata had notice of previous claims of seat belt malfunction by telling another juror of his prior Google searches. [He] also stated that he had not seen any law suits on either web page during his searches. At least five other jurors either heard the comment or were made aware of the comment during jury deliberations.

Juries are to decide a case based on the evidence presented in the courtroom. Thus, South Dakota’s pattern jury instructions include specific jury admonitions, such as, “Do not do any research or make any investigation about the case on your own.” Likewise, a cautionary instruction suggested to be given when the jury retires to deliberate says “you must not consider anything you may have heard or read about this case other than the evidence which has been properly admitted herein.”

The jury returned a verdict for Tanaka and TK Holdings. Later learning of the discussion during deliberations, the plaintiffs sought a new trial on the grounds the juror’s information should not have been brought into deliberations. The trial judge agreed and granted the motion and the defendants have appealed her ruling.

As a result, while courts in other jurisdictions are struggling with these situations, South Dakota trial courts may get guidance on them. It’s even possible the case could affect the content of jury questionnaires, admonitions and instructions. At the same time, it’s also possible that use of the internet may not be reached. One question the Court faces is whether the fact the information was obtained before trial and could have been discovered during jury selection prevents it from being prejudicial. Either way, the case is further proof of the pervasive effects of cyberspace in the real world.

We are currently not planning on conquering the world.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, March 2, 2006

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