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Thomas v. Mercy Hospitals East Communities

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

September 13, 2016

THADDEUS THOMAS, a Minor, by and through his Next Friend, Marlin Thomas, and MARLIN THOMAS and MA SHERYLL JOY THOMAS, Individually, Appellants,
v.
MERCY HOSPITALS EAST COMMUNITIES, d/b/a MERCY HOSPITAL - WASHINGTON, and MERCY CLINIC EAST COMMUNITIES, Respondents.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Franklin County, Missouri 13AB-CC00063 Honorable Gael D. Wood Filed: September 13, 2016

          OPINION

          James M. Dowd, Presiding Judge

         In this medical malpractice action, Appellants appeal the judgment entered by the trial court in favor of Mercy Hospitals East Communities, d/b/a Mercy Hospital - Washington, and Mercy Clinic East Communities (collectively, "Mercy") following a jury trial. Appellants contend that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to strike for cause Venireperson 24 ("Venireperson") after she expressed during voir dire a disqualifying bias in favor of Mercy: that she would "start off slightly in favor" of Mercy in this case because her sister was a registered nurse at another Mercy facility. Since Venireperson served on the jury in this case, we reverse and remand for a new trial because we find that Venireperson's stated bias disqualified her from jury service on this case and she was not subsequently rehabilitated.

          Factual and Procedural Background

         This case stems from allegations that the respondent health care providers were negligent in connection with the Caesarean-section delivery of Thaddeus Thomas resulting in brain damage to the newborn. The case proceeded to trial on March 16, 2015, and the jury returned a verdict for Mercy on March 26, 2015. Appellants' only point on appeal asserts that the trial court committed reversible error when it denied Appellants' motion to strike Venireperson, who was later seated as a juror and took part in the verdict in this case. Appellants moved for a new trial, challenging the trial court's denial of the motion to strike Venireperson. The court denied that motion, and this appeal follows.

         Standard of Review

         We reverse the trial court's ruling on a challenge for cause if it is clearly against the evidence and is a clear abuse of discretion. See Joy v. Morrison, 254 S.W.3d 885, 888 (Mo.banc 2008). And where a venireperson or juror clearly demonstrates a possible bias and is not thereafter rehabilitated by counsel, the trial court's failure to strike the venireperson or juror undercuts any basis for the court's exercise of discretion and constitutes reversible error. Hudson v. Behring, 261 S.W.3d 621, 624 (Mo.App.E.D. 2008) (holding that where a juror clearly indicated a possible bias, the trial court unquestionably abused its discretion by failing to excuse the juror); cf. Morrison, 254 S.W.3d at 891 (finding that where a venireperson or juror equivocates about his or her ability to be fair and impartial, "failure by [the] trial judge to question independently a potential juror to explore possible prejudice may undercut any basis for [the] trial judge's exercise of discretion and constitute reversible error").

          Discussion

         It is axiomatic that in Missouri civil litigants have a constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury of twelve qualified jurors. Mo. Const, art. I, § 22(a); Williams By & Through Wilfordv. Barnes Hosp., 736 S.W.2d 33, 36 (Mo.banc 1987). Litigants are entitled to unbiased jurors whose experiences will not prejudice the resolution of the case. Hudson, 261 S.W.3d at 624 (citing Williams By & Through Wilford, 736 S.W.2d at 36). It is essential that a competent juror be in a position to enter the jury box disinterested and with an open mind, free from bias or prejudice. Id. (citing Catlett v. Ill. C.G.R. Co., 793 S.W.2d 351, 353 (Mo.banc 1990)). Even though three-fourths of the jury can decide a civil case, parties are entitled to have that decision, whether for them or against them, based on the honest deliberations of twelve qualified jurors. Id. (citing Piehler v. Kansas City Pub. Serv. Co., 211 S.W.2d 459, 463 (Mo.banc 1948)).

         To secure the right to an unbiased jury, § 494.470[1] provides in pertinent part:

1. . . . [N]o person who has formed or expressed an opinion concerning the matter or any material fact in controversy in any case that may influence the judgment of such person . . . shall be sworn as a juror in the same cause.
2. Persons whose opinions or beliefs preclude them from following the law as declared by the court in instructions are ineligible to serve as jurors on that case.

         The difference between subsections 1 and 2 is that the first precludes from jury service any person who has "formed or expressed an opinion concerning [specifically] the matter or any material fact in controversy" that may influence her judgment, while the second bars from such service any person who is manifestly unable to follow the court's instructions due to her "opinions or beliefs'" about potentially much broader issues. See Morrison, 254 S.W.3d at 889 (explaining the difference between the two subsections).

         Here, Appellants assert that the venireperson in question should have been struck under subsection 1 of § 494.470 for demonstrating a disqualifying bias-for expressing during voir dire an opinion concerning the case that posed at least some risk of influencing her judgment as a juror. We agree.

         At the beginning of voir dire, Appellants' counsel noted that this case "involves Mercy Clinics, Mercy Clinic Physicians, . . . and Mercy Clinic Hospital" as defendants. Counsel then asked the pool of prospective jurors, "Just knowing that they are defendants in this case, is there anyone that feels they might start off the case a little bit more in favor of one party or the other?" Venireperson raised her hand. The following exchange between Venireperson ("V") and Appellants' counsel ("C") ensued:

V; My sister works at the Big St. John's. She's an R.N. Are they affiliated?
C: Sorry?
V: Is Big St. John's and this hospital ...

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