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Breaching the Privacy of Jury Deliberations: Jurors Conducting Online Research

April 15, 2014 By Emily F. Belanger

In the case of Cooch v. S&D River Island LLC, et al., suit was brought against an apartment building owner and the property management company (the “Defendants”) by a tenant (the “Plaintiff”) who claimed that she had suffered both personal injury and property damage as a result of the negligence of the Defendants in failing to rid her apartment of bedbugs. The main issue between the parties at trial concerned the extent of Plaintiff’s property damage.  Plaintiff was concerned that her personal belongings were actually or potentially infested but because she was unable to secure a treatment that would give her a 100% guarantee that her belongings would be free of bedbugs, she left her furniture in the apartment when she moved out and discarded many other belongings.

A jury trial was held and the jury concluded: (1) the Defendants owed a duty of reasonable care to the Plaintiff; (2) the Defendants breached that duty of care; but (3) there was no causal connection between that breach and the claimed property loss. After the trial adjourned and the jury was dismissed, the attorney for the Plaintiff asked a juror, known as “A.B.,” if he was willing to discuss the case.  Based on this discussion with A.B., Plaintiff’s attorney filed a Motion for New Trial arguing that the basis of the jury’s verdict not to award any property damage was the result of the juror inappropriately conducting online research.  So what did A.B. do exactly?  
 As the trial court gleaned from the affidavit of Plaintiff’s attorney, the jury had determined that the Plaintiff should not have discarded her property.  A.B. stated that he had performed “some online research” and “found out that there are companies that provide fumigation services.” Based on this “evidence” obtained outside of the courtroom, A.B. concluded that it was not necessary for the Plaintiff to discard her property.
 The trial court denied Plaintiff’s Motion and an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland followed.  In its opinion, the appellate court recognized two competing interests: preserving the advantages of finality and repose in jury verdicts once rendered on the one hand, and rooting out jury verdicts that are tainted on the other. The appellate court ultimately affirmed the trial court, noting that the Plaintiff failed to meet the burden of proof.  
 The appellate court concluded that Plaintiff’s counsel’s affidavit did not include any indication the online research occurred during the trial, although the court noted it was likely that it did.  The court also noted there was no basis to believe the information was shared with other jurors, that it was discussed during deliberations, or impacted the jury’s deliberations or verdict.  The court concluded that Plaintiff “had to show that it probably did happen, not that it might possibly have happened.” Finally, the appellate court concluded: “[p]rejudice, even if present, is something that is measured quantitatively. The possible taint of extraneous information influencing the deliberative process of one juror is quantitatively not as great as the taint of extraneous information influencing the deliberative process of twelve jurors. Indeed, it is only 1/12 as great.”
 There have been many cases over the years of juries gathering evidence outside the courtroom, which they are specifically instructed not to do.  While the appellate court surmised that the research occurred during trial, it failed to go the next step: surmising that the issue was discussed during deliberations.  While juries are instructed as to the law to be applied to the facts they find to be true, it is still difficult for a jury to grasp the niceties of the relationship between a wrong and the resulting damages, especially in the context of this case.  If juror A.B. concluded the Plaintiff could have had her property fumigated as opposed to discarding it as a basis for finding no causal relationship between the negligence of the Defendants and the loss of the property, then one might very well conclude the issue was raised and discussed during the jury’s deliberations.