Attorneys typically rejoice when courts provide further definition of previously established rules, standards, and legal terms; and that is exactly what the Western District Court of Appeals did in King v. Sorenson. We have previously chronicled Missouri’s adoption of Rule 69.025, which obligates a litigant to investigate the backgrounds of potential jurors. Specifically, if a litigant has failed to conduct a “reasonable investigation” of prospective jurors’ litigation history, he has waived the right to seek relief from an adverse judgment, based on juror non-disclosure. Before King v. Sorenson, lawyers knew that the definition of a “reasonable investigation” required review of Case.net before the jury is sworn, but there was no further guidance as to the required extent of a “reasonable search,” nor any accepted protocol to ensure that a search of venireperson’s litigation history is conducted properly.
King v. Sorenson was a wrongful death and lost chance of recovery case, in which the trial court provided both parties with a list of sixty-five randomly selected names of potential jurors. One of potential jurors was listed at “J. Paul Willis,” and this was confirmed by a separate juror questionnaire where the venireperson provided the name of “(John) Paul Willis.” At no time did the venireperson represent that Paul was his functional first name, and Plaintiff’s counsel solely conducted Case.net searches using “J” or “John” as the litigant’s first name, “P” or “Paul” as the middle name, and “Willis” as the last name. These searches revealed no collections cases involving the prospective juror.
In voir dire, Plaintiff’s counsel emphasized the importance of prospective juror honesty, candor, and how the lack thereof could cause the same issues to be re-tried and re-litigated. When the panel was questioned about collection cases that have been brought against them, Mr. Willis remained silent. Mr. Willis ultimately was seated on the jury, and participated in its defense verdict, signing the verdict form as “Paul Willis.”
Contrary to Willis’ representations on his juror questionnaire and during voir dire, it was later discovered that he was a defendant in a collection case where he was sued for an alleged breach of contract styled Champion Trim,Inc. v. Paul Willis, et al. Because Willis never provided “Paul” as his first name, Plaintiff’s counsel had not searched Case.net for matters involving a “Paul Willis.”
Plaintiff moved for a new trial based on the juror non-disclosure of litigation history. But the trial court denied the motion, and ruled that Plaintiff’s counsel “mistakenly used the incorrect first name” when conducting a Case.net search, and the search was therefore unreasonable. The Western District Court of Appeals disagreed and held that “where a litigant has performed a Case.net search by inserting the names as provided to counsel by the trial court, such a search simply cannot be deemed anything but ‘reasonable.’”
The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court, to determine if a new trial was warranted. It held that “if the trial court finds that Juror Willis’s nondisclosure was intentional, bias and prejudice must be presumed and a new trial ordered. If the trial court finds that the nondisclosure was unintentional, it must undertake an analysis as to whether Plaintiffs were prejudiced, in such a fashion necessitating a new trial, by Juror Willis’s nondisclosure of the 1991 lawsuit.”