No “hard and fast rule” but juror’s pre-trial Google search requires new trial

Although saying it was adopting “no hard and fast rule,” the South Dakota Supreme Court has upheld an order granting a new trial in a case where a juror did a Google search on a defendant two months before being called for jury duty and happened to mention the search during jury deliberations.

In Russo v. Takata Corp., a man I’ll simply call S.F. received a jury summons for the lawsuit. As I detailed in an earlier post he wondered what Takata did and performed two Google searches on the company from his home computer. Some two months later, he happened to be picked to serve on the jury in the wrongful death and personal injury case, which claimed seatbelts Takata manufactured were negligently designed. Jurors were not specifically asked about internet searches during jury selection and S.F. did not mention it.

About four and a half to five hours into jury deliberations, though, another juror asked out loud whether Takata had ever been sued. S.F. responded that he had done a Google search and learned that Takata manufactured seatbelts and airbags but didn’t find any lawsuits during his search. Another juror told S.F. “in a loud and stern voice” that jurors weren’t supposed to consider outside information. Although S.F. tried to retract what he had said, at least three other jurors overheard the exchange and knew what he said. The jury foreman was not asked to do anything about the comments and the exchange wasn’t reported to the trial court.

The jury returned a verdict for Tanaka. Later learning of the discussion during deliberations, the plaintiffs sought a new trial on the grounds S.F shouldnot have mentioned the information. The trial judge agreed and granted the motion. It is that decision the Supreme Court affirmed.

Most of the Court’s decision deals with the legal standards for challenging jury verdicts and discusses extrinsic and intrinsic information and the question of prejudice in such situations. Suffice it to say that while jurors are allowed to bring their own general knowledge to a case, they’re not supposed to bring specific knowledge. The Supreme Court said the latter included knowledge “which is factual or legal in nature and obtained due to jury service on a specific trial from sources other than the evidence admitted at trial.” (Emphasis in Court’s opinion.) It said what S.F. learned in his Google searches was such information and, given evidence at trial, was relevant to the issues.

In a footnote, the Court acknowledged the jury summons said those receiving it should not “seek out evidence regarding this case.” At the same time, it noted that statement was not necessarily clear. It suggested trial courts “consider using simpler and more direct language in the summons to indicate that no information about the case or the parties should be sought out by any means, including via computer searches.” At bottom, though, while the Court said it agreed Tanaka was entitled to a new trial, it also said “we announce no hard and fast rule that all such types of internet research by a juror prior to trial without notice to the court and counsel automatically doom a jury’s verdict.” Instead, it said that because the trial judge is present throughout the trial, they are in the best position to assess whether there was extraneous material that prejudiced the jury and their decision must be clearly erroneous or an abuse of discretion.

Thus, South Dakota will have no bright line rule about potential jurors doing internet research. Each case and each instance is necessarily going to be different and the potential impact different. Moreover, this case did not involve a juror who used the internet in relation to the case during the course of trial or deliberations. The upside is that the decision is likely to make South Dakota trial courts and lawyers more cognizant of including questions about internet searches or even Facebook or Twitter when selecting a jury.

Yep, that interweb thingy can be problematic.

The potential for inaccuracies and [the internet’s] wide availability also support [jury selection] questions designed to identify any jurors who may have accessed information about the parties on the internet.

Russo v. Takata Corp.

2 comments to No “hard and fast rule” but juror’s pre-trial Google search requires new trial

  • Would an attorney in court be allowed to say that a google search failed to show that X has been sued for negligence or crimes of any kind?

    If doing a Google search is a good enough reason for not being on a jury, that should be first step of jury avoidance.

    A times, it seems as if not only is ignorance of the law not an excuse, it is however a requirement for being on a jury.

    What about all those prospective jurors who admit to watching Ophra or FoxNews on TV?