Article I Section 22 of the Missouri Constitution holds that litigants have a right to trial by a fair and impartial jury of twelve qualified jurors. A qualified juror has been defined as one who is “in a position to enter the jury box disinterested and with an open mind, free from bias or prejudice.” Catlett v. Ill. Cent. Gulf R.R. 793 S.W.2d 351, 353 (Mo. Banc 1990). The Missouri Supreme Court held earlier this month in Thaddeus Thomas et. al v. Mercy Hospitals East Communities, et. al, No. SC96034 that “The trial court is in the best position to evaluate a potential juror and is afforded broad discretion in determining whether the potential juror is ultimately qualified to serve.” The Court provided wide discretion to the trial judge’s ruling regarding the impartiality of a prospective juror.
The Supreme Court was addressing Plaintiff’s motion to strike a prospective juror for cause that was overruled. The case involved a medical negligence claim, alleging fault of the nurses during the delivery of a child through a cesarean section. The prospective juror in question—juror 24—admitted during venire by the Plaintiff’s Counsel that she might lean toward the defendant hospital because her sister was a nurse for a related hospital and stated that she would “probably” be slightly in favor of defendant. After Plaintiff’s Counsel moved to strike the juror for cause, the judge gave the attorneys an opportunity to rehabilitate juror 24. When questioned by defense counsel, she noted that she could put aside her sister’s relationship with the hospital and “do [her] best currently decide this case based on what [she] hear[s] in the courtroom, not what her sister has told [her]. The Plaintiff still moved to strike for cause, saying she only stated that she would “do her best.” The trial court overruled the motion, seated Juror 24, and she took part in the verdict which was in favor of defendant hospital. Plaintiff moved for a new trial based on the trial court’s overruling of the motion to strike prospective juror 24.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that there are two types of bias that are proscribed by Section 494.470 of the Missouri Code. One involves those jurors who have formed an opinion on the material facts of the case; the other type of bias focuses on opinions of larger issues. The Courts treat these types of biases differently. The Court reiterated the holding in State v. Debler, 856 S.W.2d 641 (Mo. banc 1993) and held that the second type of bias only disqualifies a juror if the prospective jurors’ views would preclude following the instructions given by the court, noting that these types of biases exist in all prospective jurors to some extent. The Court found that this was the type of bias at issue in the case, and thus, the juror needed to be disqualified only if it was found that her bias precluded her from following instructions given by the Court. Importantly, the Court held that it is not improper for the trial court to rely on the juror’s own assessment of her ability to remain impartial, and thus, the trial court’s assessment of juror 24 was not an abuse of discretion.
The Court also held that where answers are equivocal as to impartiality, as was the case with juror 24 before the second round of questioning, “it is incumbent upon the trial judge to question the juror further to either confirm the lack of qualifications to serve, or to rehabilitate the venireperson.” The Court noted that failure to do so “may undercut any basis for a trial judge’s exercise of discretion and constitute reversible error.” (Internal citations omitted). This sentence should be flagged as it merely states that it may constitute reversible error. The Court goes on to hold that “mere equivocation is not enough to disqualify a juror.”
Further demonstrating this point, the Court affirmed Joy v. Morrison, 254 S.W.3d 885 (Mo. banc 2008), which held that there was no violation of the right to a jury trial when the prospective juror was silent while the group of prospective jurors were asked if they believed they could follow the trial court’s instructions or could keep an open mind until they had heard all of the evidence. This presents the question as to what would occur if a juror was intentionally silent when directly asked these types of questions.