Court debates over juror who performed Internet research

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

The explosion of smartphone technology has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of information and misinformation readily available to the general public. A juror would previously have had to go to the hassle of searching an encyclopedia if they really wanted to break the court’s rules and research a topic at issue in a trial. All a juror need do now is simply take out their phone and they have immediate access to a vast array of information. What they choose to do with that information could have very damaging effects for a case. This was recently addressed in the case of McGee v. The City of Chicago, 2012 IL App (1st) 111084 (Oct. 9, 2012) Cook Co., 2d Div.

McGee addressed the issue of whether defendants were entitled to a new trial where the circuit court failed to remove or even voir dire a juror who had performed Internet research on a case. The juror in question had done research on memory lapse and brought a printed-off page on the matter into the jury room. The page was seen by at least two other jurors. The matter came to light after a fellow juror reported the incident to the bailiff. When the bailiff addressed the group, the juror failed to own up to the matter. It was established by speaking with other jurors who had done this research.

On appeal, the defendants argued that the plaintiff’s memory lapses were a crucial issue in the case. The defendants contended that it is unknown the effect that the article had on other jurors due to the circuit court’s refusal to voir dire the juror. The plaintiffs responded by arguing that the circuit court acted within its sound discretion in allowing the juror in question to remain empaneled. The plaintiffs also argues that the defendants waived their right to challenge the circuit court’s decision because the defendants allegedly ratified the circuit court’s plan to issue a curative instruction to the jury. The defendants argue that a new trial is required even under the abuse of discretion standard due to the circuit court’s failure to even ascertain the content of the research brought by the juror.

The appeal court held that the defendants had not waived this issue on appeal because the circuit court ruled on the merits of the issue both during the trial and in denying the defendants’ post-trial motion. The court reiterated what was stated in Thorton v. Garcini, where it was said that “[t]he party challenging the verdict needs to show only that the information relates directly to something at issue in the case which the losing party did not have the opportunity to refute and that may have influenced the verdict.” 364 Ill. App. 3d 612, 617 (2006). Thornton further stated at 617 that “[t]he determination of whether prejudice has occurred rests in the sound judicial discretion of the court after it has considered all the facts and circumstances.”

In the present case, it was held that the circuit court abused its discretion be failing to voir dire the juror who performed extraneous research on an issue that had a direct bearing on the case. The court found that the jury’s consideration of the plaintiff’s claimed memory lapses was critical to the outcome of the case. The court held that the defendants were not able to refute the extraneous information and that it may have influenced the verdict. The burden then moved to the plaintiff to show that no prejudice occurred, which the plaintiff failed to satisfy in the present case.

It is clear from this case that when dealing with extraneous evidence introduced by a juror that the court should always err on the side of caution and establish the material that the juror reviewed, along with the effect it had on that juror or any other juror. A failure to do so by the court will give rise to grounds for appeal.

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