Appeals panel remands auto negligence case for new trial, agrees trial court erred in seating biased juror

By Angela Underwood | Jul 9, 2018

WEST PALM BEACH – A panel of judges for Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal recently agreed that a Broward County court erred in denying a challenge for cause to a prospective juror.

Judges Martha C Warner, Carole Y. Taylor and Spencer D. Levine said in their June 27 ruling that the 17th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida for Broward County should have allowed the challenge in the negligence suit filed by Dayana St. Vil Lopez against Yo Roofing and Associates Inc. and Scott Vorhees regarding an automobile collision and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial.

“We agree that the court erred, where the juror stated that she could not hold an employer vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee, the plaintiff’s theory of liability in this case. The challenge should have been granted,” Warner said in the opinion.

According to Warner, during jury selection, a retired secretary for a carpet company, named Clark, was questioned by counsel.

“She was asked if she could render a verdict against a company whose employee was negligent, as opposed to a verdict against the employee himself. She asked counsel her own question: if the employee was drinking, doing drugs, or had a heart attack, why should the employer be responsible for him or her?” Warner said in the opinion.

Clark was told to “assume that it was a ‘he said, she said’ situation or an honest accident,” Warner said, adding, “during election, appellant challenged Clark for cause, stating that Clark had said she would be uncomfortable rendering a verdict against an employer for the negligence of its employee. After the court and the defense attorney both said they missed that answer of Clark, the court denied the challenge without further inquiry.”

Ultimately, Clark sat on the jury and the case went to trial.

“She could not find an employer vicariously liable, the sole ground for liability of appellee (Yo Roofing and Vorhees),” Warner said in the opinion. “There is no question that the juror expressed a bias against holding an employer liable for an employee’s negligence. At the very least, there is reasonable doubt as to Clark’s ability to render an impartial decision.”

Countering, the appellee argues “appellant should have asked more questions of Clark to establish the extent of her bias or to clarify her opinion,“ the opinion said.

“There is no such requirement,”  Warner writes in the opinion. “Her bias was clearly evident.”

Warner noted how the appellee also contended appellant had an obligation to the court to note Clark expressed her inability to find against an employer.

“However, the duty to determine the facts is that of the trial court,” Warner said in the opinion. “Here, the answers of the juror were the facts which should have been ascertained by the trial court.”

Furthermore, Warner said that “if the trial court did not remember the answers, the court should have ordered the court reporter to read that portion of the transcript before denying the challenge.“

Warner concluded the three-page opinion by noting that “because the court abused its discretion in denying the challenge for cause, which actually resulted in the seating of a biased juror, we reverse and remand for a new trial.”

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