Fields v. Saunders

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Citation2012 OK 17,278 P.3d 577
Docket NumberNo. 107,302.,107,302.
PartiesLimbusha FIELDS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Keontae Kevon Cole, deceased; Limbusha Fields, individually; and Keon Cole, individually, Plaintiffs/Appellants, v. Kristi M. SAUNDERS, M.D., and Kathryn Reilly, M.D., Defendants/Appellees, and The State of Oklahoma ex rel. The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma; Rita Rankaja Ramen, M.D.; Adriana Monica Brune, M.D.; and HCA Health Services of Oklahoma, Inc. d/b/a OU Medical Center d/b/a Children's Hospital, Defendants.
Decision Date21 May 2012

278 P.3d 577
2012 OK 17

Limbusha FIELDS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Keontae Kevon Cole, deceased; Limbusha Fields, individually; and Keon Cole, individually, Plaintiffs/Appellants,
v.
Kristi M. SAUNDERS, M.D., and Kathryn Reilly, M.D., Defendants/Appellees,
and
The State of Oklahoma ex rel.
The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma; Rita Rankaja Ramen, M.D.; Adriana Monica Brune, M.D.; and HCA Health Services of Oklahoma, Inc. d/b/a OU Medical Center d/b/a Children's Hospital, Defendants.

No. 107,302.

Supreme Court of Oklahoma.

March 6, 2012.
Rehearing Denied May 21, 2012.


[278 P.3d 578]


Certiorari to the Court of Civil Appeals, Division II, On Appeal from the District Court of Oklahoma County, State of Oklahoma; Honorable Noma D. Gurich, Trial Judge.

¶ 0 A jury returned verdicts in favor of all defendants on plaintiffs' medical malpractice claims.
Thereafter, plaintiffs learned that a juror had voluntarily disclosed bias towards plaintiffs' cause of action and plaintiffs' race. Plaintiffs sought a new trial on this and other grounds. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motion for new trial. On appeal, the Court of Civil Appeals unanimously rejected all of plaintiffs' grounds for new trial except the claim of juror bias. This was rejected by majority vote. In rejecting this ground, the majority ruled the juror's post-verdict statements were impermissible impeachment of the jury verdicts. The dissenting judge concluded

[278 P.3d 579]

otherwise, noting the juror's statements were his own public, voluntary statements (not related by other jurors) and revealed the juror was intent on serving on the case with a predisposition to an outcome adverse to the plaintiffs. This Court has previously granted certiorari. Upon review, we vacate the Court of Civil Appeals opinion, and reverse and remand for a new trial.
CERTIORARI PREVIOUSLY GRANTED; COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS OPINION VACATED; JUDGMENT OF THE TRIAL COURT REVERSED AND REMANDED.


Joe E. White, Jr., Charles C. Weddle, III, White & Weddle, P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiffs/Appellants.

Hilton H. Walters, Jamie K. Bruehl, Rife Walters & Bruehl, LLP, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Alison A. Cave, Alison A. Cave, PLLC, Edmond, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee, Kristi M. Saunders, M.D.


L. Earl Ogletree, Lane O. Krieger, Wiggins Sewell & Ogletree, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee, Kathryn Reilly, M.D.

REIF, J.:

¶ 1 This case presents important issues regarding the right to jury trial guaranteed by Article 2, Section 19 of the Oklahoma Constitution. The primary issue is whether this right has been violated by a juror who concealed bias against one of the parties during voir dire, and revealed such bias of his own accord after a verdict has been rendered. The second but equally important issue is the standard of review to be employed in deciding a claim of error of this nature. One of the well settled tenets of the right to jury trial is that jurors must be impartial, and bias or prejudice in a case disqualifies one as a juror thereon. Parrish v. Lilly, 1993 OK 80, ¶ 10, 883 P.2d 158, 160. Considering this fundamental tenet with the specific constitutional command that justice shall be administered without prejudice, Article 2, Section 6,1 as well as the general constitutional mandate of due process of law, Article 2, Section 7,2 this Court must conclude that participation by a juror under such circumstances presents a claim of error of constitutional dimension. Error of this nature calls for independent, non-deferential de novo review.3

¶ 2 In the case at hand, a jury returned verdicts in favor of the defendants on plaintiffs' medical malpractice claims. Plaintiffs raised the issue of juror bias for the first time in their motion for new trial. The record of the evidentiary hearing on the motion for new trial reveals that plaintiffs did not learn of the bias on the part of a particular juror until after the verdicts were rendered and the jury discharged. The record reflects that the juror in question went to an Oklahoma City bar later in the day after the

[278 P.3d 580]

trial was concluded. It is undisputed that the juror talked to another individual at the bar about his service on the jury in this case. The other individual was an attorney and a member of the Oklahoma Bar Association. This attorney was employed as a deputy general counsel for an agency of the State of Oklahoma and had no connection to the case or the attorneys for the parties.

¶ 3 According to this attorney, the juror related, inter alia, that (1) the plaintiffs would have never won the case with him (the juror) serving in the case, (2) he (the juror) was not impartial despite stating in voir dire he could be, and (3) he (the juror) wanted to “play the judicial system” and believed plaintiffs had the burden to prove the defendants intended harm beyond a reasonable doubt before they could recover. The attorney also related that the juror expressed his dislike for African Americans. The plaintiffs in this case are African Americans.4

¶ 4 In addition to the statements related by the attorney, it is undisputed that the juror provided inaccurate and incomplete information about his criminal convictions on the juror questionnaire used in voir dire. The juror reported that he had misdemeanor convictions from Linn County, Oregon, and Ventura County, California, but omitted another misdemeanor conviction for theft in the Kirkland Municipal Court, King County, Washington. As concerns the Linn County, Oregon conviction, the juror reported his sentence was three days, when he served 168 hours (seven days) and was placed on thirty-six months of supervised probation. The juror failed to disclose that he was serving the probationary portion of his sentence at the time of trial.

¶ 5 The juror acknowledged that he did talk about his jury service at the place and time as related by the attorney. He denied, however, making any of the statements regarding bias against plaintiffs' right to recover or their race. He acknowledged that his answers on the questionnaire may have been incomplete, but explained that he gave answers in the space allotted on the questionnaire. He stated that he had no bias against the plaintiffs.

¶ 6 Upon de novo review of the record,5 this Court finds that the juror in question entertained bias against the plaintiffs' race and their right to recover under the appropriate burden of proof. In reaching this conclusion, we first note that this is not a case where dissenting or minority jurors are attempting to impeach a verdict with which they do not agree by breaching the sanctity of the jury deliberations. This is a case where a juror voluntarily revealed, after verdicts were returned, that (1) the juror entertained disqualifying bias against one

[278 P.3d 581]

party's race and right to recover under the appropriate burden of proof, and (2) deliberately concealed such bias upon voir dire in order to participate in rendering verdicts consistent with such bias.

¶ 7 In rejecting the juror's denials that he entertained such bias or made statements that revealed the bias, we first observe that jurors' assurances that they are unbiased are not dispositive or the sole test. Bickell v. State, 1928 OK CR 285, 41 Okla.Crim. 35, 270 P. at 89. As the court in Bickell pointed out: “Prejudice is a subtle thing [that] exist[s] in the mind of an individual [and often] cannot be discovered, except by the conduct of some expression of the person entertaining it.” Bickell, 1928 OK CR 285, 41 Okla.Crim. 35, 270 P. at 89. The Bickell court went on to say that “the circumstances surrounding the juror should be considered in determining his competency.” Id. We find that the juror's misleading answers on the voir dire questionnaire and his revelation of bias to the attorney are sufficient circumstances or expressions upon which to conclude the juror entertained disqualifying bias.

¶ 8 We also think it important to explain why we have given great weight to the testimony of the attorney to whom the juror revealed his bias. This attorney is a member of the bar of the State of Oklahoma who has sworn to reform falsehoods done in court when the attorney has knowledge of such falsehoods. 5 O.S.2011, § 2. The juror's concealment of his bias and admission that he deliberately did so to participate in returning verdicts consistent with his bias constituted a “falsehood done in court” that the attorney was duty bound to bring to the attention of court.

¶ 9 Oklahoma jurisprudence has long recognized the general rule that “[i]f the objection [to a juror] relates to the moral capacity or impartiality of the juror [even] if not discovered until after the verdict, it would no doubt be as good a ground for new trial as a cause of challenge before.” Carr v. State, 1938 OK CR 106, 65 Okla.Crim. 201, 84 P.2d 42, 46. The syllabus of the case indicates this rule applies to the discovery of a ground to disqualify a juror after verdict when the juror falsely qualifies on voir dire, knowing of the disqualifying ground.

¶ 10 It is well settled that “Courts have a duty to enforce strict observance of the constitutional and statutory provisions designed to preserve inviolate [the] right to, and purity of jury trial.” Jackson v. General Finance Corp., 1953 OK 22, ¶ 7, 208 Okla. 44, 253 P.2d 166, 168. As the appellate courts of this State have previously observed, every citizen is “entitled to jurors who [are] unbiased and qualified and ‘not only of one such juror, nor eleven but twelve of such class.’ ” State v. Smith, 1958 OK CR 6, ¶ 12, 320 P.2d 719, 724 (cited approvingly in Parrish, 1993 OK 80, at ¶¶ 11, 14 n. 3, 883 P.2d at 161).

¶ 11 In the Parrish case, this Court squarely held that “[e]ach and every person who sits on a jury, regardless of the number of jurors required to render a verdict, must satisfy the constitutional and statutory requirements of impartiality.” P...

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