Poet v. Traverse City Osteopathic Hosp.

Decision Date22 August 1989
Docket NumberDocket No. 82941
Citation433 Mich. 228,445 N.W.2d 115
PartiesBarbara POET, Individually and as next friend of Matthew Poet, and Jeffrey R. Poet, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. TRAVERSE CITY OSTEOPATHIC HOSPITAL, a Michigan nonprofit corporation, Defendant-Appellant, and M.A. Houghton, Jr., D.O., and Empire Clinic, Defendants.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

ARCHER, Justice.

We granted leave to consider whether plaintiffs were entitled to a new trial as a consequence of the trial judge's denial of plaintiffs' challenge of a juror for cause, where the juror was subsequently dismissed peremptorily.

We hold that a trial court commits error requiring reversal when the record reveals that: (1) the court improperly denied a challenge for cause, (2) the aggrieved party had exhausted all peremptory challenges, (3) the party demonstrated a desire to excuse another subsequently summoned juror, and (4) the juror whom the party wished later to excuse was objectionable. Accordingly, because the plaintiffs satisfied all of these factors, we affirm the holding of the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the trial court for a new trial.


On July 18, 1983, appellees Barbara, Jeffrey, and Matthew Poet brought a medical malpractice suit in Grand Traverse Circuit Court against defendant-appellant Traverse City Osteopathic Hospital and defendants M.A. Houghton, Jr., D.O., and the Empire Clinic. 1

Specifically, the action was based on the charge that Dr. Houghton, an employee of the Empire Clinic, was negligent in the prenatal treatment of Barbara and in the delivery of Matthew. Further, the complaint charged that the hospital was negligent in its failure to monitor, supervise, and provide appropriate hospital procedures relating to birth and delivery. The Poets' chief argument was that these negligent acts resulted in Matthew being born with significant, permanent brain damage.

The trial commenced January 6, 1986. Voir dire opened routinely with the court explaining the nature of the case to the venire. Initially six persons were chosen from the venire, and each was questioned first by the court, and then by the attorneys. Early in the questioning, Mr. Ward, counsel for the Poets, addressed the notion of damages as an element of negligence. Likewise, Mr. Hayes, counsel for the hospital, addressed the venire as to their feelings on the substantial damages which might be presented during the course of the trial. There were no significant responses by the venire during this exchange.

Eventually, juror Kathleen Primo was called from the array. She revealed that she was a registered nurse at Munson Medical Center, 2 who worked in utilization management reviewing "neo-natal intensive care unit for quality-of-care issues." Ms. Primo responded negatively when asked by the court whether her profession or particular work in the hospital would cause her to be biased. However, when the court asked if there were any inquiries posed earlier to which she would respond differently than the other jurors, she stated, "I might have different feelings about the elements about compensation."

What followed was a discourse involving juror Primo, the court, and both attorneys, in which Ms. Primo revealed her feelings that there should be a ceiling on damages sought in civil cases. However, after further questioning by all concerned, she resolved that she could be impartial.

Mr. Ward requested that juror Primo be challenged for cause, citing MCR 2.511(D)(5) 3 for support. Mr. Hayes opposed, stating that Ms. Primo's assertion of impartiality rendered her an appropriately fair-minded juror. The court denied the challenge for cause and Mr. Ward excused Ms. Primo peremptorily.

Mr. Ward had exhausted his peremptory challenges, 4 when juror James Bennett was called. Juror Bennett's occupation was that of a medical-surgical supply salesman. During questioning, he revealed that appellant hospital was one of his clients and that several of the witnesses were either personal or business acquaintances. Mr. Ward challenged juror Bennett for cause under MCR 2.511(D)(10) and (12), 5 and was again denied. As a result, Bennett remained on the jury and became the foreman. The jury returned a verdict of no cause of action.

On January 24, 1986, the Poets filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied. They appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in refusing to excuse jurors Primo and Bennett for cause. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Kathleen Primo should have been excused for cause, and, because the Poets were thereby precluded from subsequently dismissing James Bennett from the jury by way of peremptory challenge, the trial court's ruling regarding Primo constituted error requiring reversal. 6 We subsequently granted leave to appeal. 7


The guidepost for every trial court procedure is the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is well settled that due process is primarily concerned with providing a full and fair trial on the merits. See Ridenour v. Bay Co., 366 Mich. 225, 240, 114 N.W.2d 172 (1962), citing Grannis v. Ordean, 234 U.S. 385, 394, 34 S.Ct. 779, 783, 58 L.Ed. 1363 (1914).

Encompassed within this mandate of fairness and due process is the right of a civil litigant to request, in certain cases, 8 that legal matters be heard by a panel of impartial jurors. Michigan Const.1963, art. 1, Sec. 14. Hence,

"[f]airness to the parties litigant demands that the jury should be free from bias and prejudice in all cases, and that they enter upon the trial of the cases with the single desire and purpose of doing equal and exact justice between the parties, and that according to the law and the evidence given them in open court...." Theisen v. Johns, 72 Mich. 285, 292, 40 N.W. 729 (1888), citing Monaghan v. Agricultural Fire Ins. Co., 53 Mich. 238, 246, 18 N.W. 797 (1884).

With these fundamental principles in mind, we turn to the difficult task of the trial litigator in accomplishing the selection of a jury. Specifically, at issue is the link between the trial lawyer and the trial judge in procuring an impartial group of jurors: the challenge for cause.

A challenge for cause is defined as "[a] request from a party to a judge that a certain prospective juror not be allowed to be a member of the jury because of specified causes or reasons." Black's Law Dictionary (5th ed.), p. 209.

In exercising a challenge, the litigator must ascertain the general and perhaps specific disposition of the venire person toward the subject matter of the case. The success of a challenge depends upon eliciting information from the juror, as well as from other sources, as to the juror's state or condition of mind, as will enable a discretionary judgment to be formed by the court as to the juror's competency. Monaghan, supra 53 Mich. at 246, 18 N.W. 797.

Michigan common law provided that a juror was presumed qualified. People v. Collins, 166 Mich. 4, 9, 131 N.W. 78 (1911). The challenging party had the burden of showing that the challenged juror,

"ha[d] preconceived opinions or prejudice, or such other interests or limitations as would impair his capacity to render a fair and impartial verdict." 15 Mich. Law & Practice, Jury, Sec. 68, p. 642, citing 2 Honigman & Hawkins, Michigan Court Rules Anno. (2d ed.), p. 466.

Currently the Michigan Court Rules implicitly provide that upon a demonstration by counsel that a prospective juror fits one of the categories enumerated in MCR 2.511(D)(4)-(13), a trial court is required to excuse such juror for cause. This showing is equivalent to proving a biased or prejudicial state of mind. See, e.g., McNabb v. Green Real Estate Co., 62 Mich.App. 500, 507, 233 N.W.2d 811 (1975); Brownell v. Brown, 114 Mich.App. 760, 766, 319 N.W.2d 664 (1982); Bishop v. Interlake, Inc., 121 Mich.App. 397, 401, 328 N.W.2d 643 (1982); Willoughby v. Lehrbass, 150 Mich.App. 319, 331, 388 N.W.2d 688 (1986); People v. Lamar, 153 Mich.App. 127, 134-135, 395 N.W.2d 262 (1986); Cocora v. General Motors Corp., 161 Mich.App. 92, 95-96, 409 N.W.2d 736 (1987); People v. Walker, 162 Mich.App. 60, 63-64, 412 N.W.2d 244 (1987).

Ultimately, however, the decision to grant or deny a challenge for cause is within the sound discretion of the trial court. Monaghan, supra 53 Mich. at 245, 18 N.W. 797, citing Atlas Mining Co. v. Johnston, 23 Mich. 36, 2 Browns 62 (1871); People v. Carrier, 46 Mich. 442, 9 N.W. 487 (1881). Nevertheless, in exercising this discretion, the trial judge is not without constraint.

"When [discretion is] invoked as a guide to judicial action it means a sound discretion, that is to say, a discretion exercised not arbitrarily or wilfully, but with regard to what is right and equitable under the circumstances and the law, and directed by reason and conscience of the judge to a just result." Langnes v. Green, 282 U.S. 531, 541, 51 S.Ct. 243, 247, 75 L.Ed. 520 (1931).

In addressing the present circumstance, where a venire person has expressed a strong opinion, yet has resolved that she can be impartial, we believe the trial court's discretionary function should be balanced against its obligation to fulfill each litigant's right to a fair trial. By achieving this balance in each case, the act of a trial judge in granting or denying a request to remove a potential juror should represent a decision ever mindful of the constitutional seriousness involved.


In this instance, we are charged with analyzing the exercise of discretion specifically within the context of challenges for cause. In addressing this narrow issue, the Court in Glasgow v. Metropolitan Street R. Co., 191 Mo. 347, 356, 89...

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