NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 20, 2012
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-2685-08.
Stephen Guice argued the cause for appellant.
Francis X. Ryan argued the cause for respondents (Green, Lundgren & Ryan, P.C., attorneys; Mr. Ryan, on the brief).
Before Judges Sapp-Peterson and Nugent.
Plaintiff, Shirley Vecchiola, appeals from the no cause verdict entered in favor of defendants, Amanda and George Bloom. Because we conclude the post-trial inquiry by the court into juror misconduct was not sufficiently probing to ensure the verdict reached was not the product of bias, we reverse.
Trial commenced on January 4, 2011. According to the evidence presented, on May 24, 2006, Bloom's vehicle collided with plaintiff's vehicle when Bloom drove across the median and struck plaintiff's vehicle head-on. Plaintiff sustained personal injuries for which she received treatment from a chiropractor, Dr. Barry Coniglio, who also testified as an expert on plaintiff's behalf. The jury returned a no cause verdict in favor of defendants on January 7, 2011, and the court entered judgment in favor of defendants by order dated February 23, 2011.
On February 7, 2011, the court received a letter from one of the deliberating jurors, Juror #2. The court forwarded copies of the letter to counsel for both parties. The letter expressed a number of the juror's concerns about the trial, including the juror's belief that one of the other deliberating jurors, Juror #4, exhibited bias towards chiropractors:
One of the [six] voting jurors was prejudiced against chiropractors. Although all jurors were specifically asked if they could be unbiased in accepting the testimony of a chiropractor, during jury deliberations it became apparent tha[t] one juror was highly prejudiced against chiropractors. In addition, the jury as a whole thought that the statements made by the one juror meant that no one could consider the testimony of the chiropractor. Although I tried to explain to the other members that everyone had a choice as to whether or not to accept the testimony of the chiropractor, the statements that had been made by the one juror had already tainted the minds of the remainder of the jury. This juror was [Juror #4], and she was an employee of [an insurance agency, an agency run by her father and brother. Clearly, she lied about her feelings towards chiropractors to the court during the questioning session prior to being accepted as a member of the jury, and her bias significantly impacted the jury's deliberations.
Based upon this correspondence, plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial. The court conducted oral argument on May 13, 2011, and initially concluded it should grant a new trial:
Having received the letter, having read it several times, the [c]ourt believes that it clearly and convincingly has a tendency on its face to have corrupted the jury process. As a matter of respect for the jury, I am not going to bring all of the jurors in and question them about the impact.
Now[, ] I think -- let me take my legal robe off and put my equity robe on. I think under the circumstances[, ] the [c]ourt's going to grant an application for a new trial. I find that the accusations in the letter[, ] coupled with the authenticity of the letter, the sincerity of the letter, and the words in the letter which [plaintiff's counsel] read into the record, with regard to how the jurors were affected by this juror who discounted and expressed certain beliefs, certain positions with regard to chiropractic care.
It's interesting because there is that chiropractic care question in the supplemental voir dire questions and I don't recall how far we went with that and I'll trust counsels' recollections. Based upon my reading of the law, my reading of the letter, [defense counsel] is quite right about the time constraints, but I think as a matter of ...