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New Trial Based on Juror’s Letter Expressing Regret Denied

The Ohio Supreme Court today held that a new trial was not warranted in a case where, following a jury trial, a juror wrote a letter claiming that she had agreed to a Friday-evening verdict to avoid having to return for jury deliberations the following week. 

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed an Eighth District Court of Appeals decision that ordered  a new trial in the civil lawsuit Madora Jones filed against the Cleveland Clinic Foundation for medical malpractice after her husband died.

In 2017, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury deadlocked for hours before voting 6-2 in favor of Cleveland Clinic.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated that because the juror letter did not present any evidence of misconduct, the trial court properly refused to consider the letter. 

The Court remanded the case to the Eighth District to consider other issues raised by Jones.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and Melody J. Stewart joined the opinion. Ninth District Court of Appeals Judge Lynne S. Callahan also joined the opinion, sitting for Justice Michael P. Donnelly, who did not participate in the case.

Justice Stewart also issued a concurring opinion to raise questions about the trial court’s management of the jury. The justice noted the trial judge may have created false expectations among the jurors by promising to wrap up the case on a Friday, leaving them with the impression that they only had to serve for one week.

Death Prompts Lawsuit
About two weeks before his death, Madora’s husband, ReDon Jones, arrived at Cleveland Clinic’s Hillcrest Hospital complaining of chest pains. A cardiologist evaluated him and conducted a stress test on a treadmill. The cardiologist interpreted the results to conclude ReDon was not suffering from a decrease of blood supply to the heart muscles. A week later, ReDon died of a heart attack.

His wife filed a wrongful-death and medical-malpractice lawsuit against the cardiologist, Hillcrest Hospital, and Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She argued the cardiologist was negligent for failing to order a cardiac catherization, which would have found a blocked coronary artery and enabled doctors to save her husband’s life.

Jurors Deadlock Before Deciding
The trial began on a Monday, and the eight-member jury began deliberations that Friday at about 11 a.m. By 12:30 p.m., the jury had sent a note to the court asking for clarifications and alerted the judge that their votes were evenly split.

At 5 p.m., the jury sent a second note, stating they were still divided 4-4 and asked what to do. After speaking with the attorneys for the parties, the judge told the jurors to keep deliberating.

A juror then requested to be excused for a family emergency. The trial court asked the jurors if they wanted to continue to deliberate without the juror who had to leave. This meant an alternate juror would be empaneled, and they would have to restart deliberations from the beginning. The jurors chose to continue and restarted deliberations around 7:20 p.m.

About an hour later, a third note was sent to the judge indicating they were still split 4-4. Another hour later, a fourth noted stated they were deadlocked.

“How long do we have to stay here tonight? Can we go home? We are tired, cranky, and see no change in our opinions, based on the evidence in the foreseeable future,” the note stated.

Court Considers Next Step
After receiving the fourth note, the trial court responded around 9:30 p.m. telling the jury they could leave and come back Monday morning. The bailiff who delivered the note told the judge some of the jurors questioned why they should have to come back if nothing was going to change.

The court then discussed with the attorneys whether it should provide the jury instruction known as a Howard charge before it left that night or wait until the jury returned the following Monday. A Howard charge asks the jury to make one more final and sincere attempt to resolve the case.

But while the discussion was going on, the jury returned to the courtroom around 10 p.m. and announced a verdict in favor of the hospital. Jones’ attorney told the judge that the court should not accept the verdict under the circumstances, but did not formally request that the judge declare a mistrial.

Wife Appeals, Juror Writes Letter
At some point after the decision, Jones’ lawyer asked the court to declare a mistrial. The lawyer stated the trial court on its own should have declared a mistrial based on the fact that the jury did an “about-face less than 30 minutes after being instructed to return Monday at 8:30 a.m.”

A month after the trial, while the request for a new trial was pending, a juror sent the trial judge a letter explaining that she switched her vote from Jones to the hospital to avoid coming back on Monday. She said serving as a juror had been stressful, and she regretted her actions but felt the need to “speed the process along.”

The judge denied the request for a mistrial, and in the ruling stated the court could not consider the juror’s letter under the rules because the statement did not suggest that a threat, bribe, or impropriety by an officer of the court led to the change in the vote.

Jones appealed to the Eighth District, alleging several errors made by the trial court, including not considering the juror’s letter. The appellate court ruled the trial court on its own should have issued the Howard charge after the third or fourth note, and not sent the jurors back with the suggestion of returning on Monday.

The Cleveland Clinic appealed the Eighth District’s decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Court Considers Trial Errors
Justice DeWine explained the rules governing trials generally prohibit a juror from testifying about the private deliberations of a jury. The opinion noted that Ohio Rule of Evidence 606(B) prohibits the admission of a juror’s testimony to question a verdict except under two circumstances. A juror may testify about jury misconduct when evidence of that misconduct arises from a source outside the jury, or even without outside evidence, a juror may testify about a threat, bribe, or impropriety by an officer of the court.

The Court found there was not outside evidence brought to the jury that would taint their decision-making process, nor evidence of a threat, bribe, or improper action by court officials. Accordingly, the trial court appropriately refused to consider the letter.

The Court also considered the Eighth District’s conclusion that the trial court should have issued the Howard charge on its own, even though Jones had not requested it while the jury was deliberating. The opinion stated the trial court’s decision to hold off on issuing the instruction was not an abuse of discretion.

The Court noted that because the jury began deliberations anew when the alternate juror was empaneled around 8 p.m., the jury had only deliberated for less than two hours before again asking to leave. The Court concluded the trial judge was in a better position than the reviewing courts to determine whether to give the instruction and did nothing wrong in holding off.

Because the Eighth District did not address other objections raised by Jones, including whether the trial court improperly limited some hospital personnel testimony, the Court remanded the case to the Eighth District to consider the other arguments.

Concurrence Questioned Trial Management
Justice Stewart noted that by telling the jurors the case would be in their hands by Friday, the trial judge could have left the jurors with the impression they would conclude their service that day. It is a disservice to make jurors change their life plans at the last minute by implying late on Friday night that they have to come back Monday morning, she wrote.

“Trial courts could avoid this by refraining from making promises that risk creating expectations the trial court may be unable to keep. It is unfair to jurors and the parties to require a jury to render a verdict when the primary focus of the jurors is the end of their jury service,” Justice Stewart wrote.

2019-0390. Jones v. Cleveland Clinic Found, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3780.

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