I attended law school in Massachusetts and our professors continuously reminded us that California likes to stand alone on many legal issues. No Surprise. This was illustrated again in Nodal v. Cal-West Rain, Inc. (2019) 2019 WL 323856). Unlike in Federal Court or most other state courts, California allows juror affidavits to impeach a verdict pursuant to California Evidence Code §1150 if the affidavit shows objectively ascertainable conduct or statements that were likely to have improperly influenced other jurors.
In Nodal, the plaintiff was working as a foreman at a vineyard when the pump system for the vineyard’s irrigation system shut down. Plaintiff was attempting to re-start the pump when the valve system dislodged from the piping and struck plaintiff, causing injury. Plaintiff sued defendant, who had designed the irrigation system, for negligent design and construction. One of the plaintiff’s experts opined at trial that the valve assembly may have broken off the pipe because it had been over-tightened.
The jury returned a 9-3 verdict for the defendant. Plaintiff requested a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”). The trial court denied plaintiff’s JNOV and found that, upon review of the jurors’ affidavits, there had been juror misconduct. However, the conduct of the jury had not been prejudicial to plaintiff. Plaintiff appealed. The Court of Appeal agreed that the JNOV was properly denied, but disagreed on the topic of juror misconduct and the prejudice it created against plaintiff.
The juror in question is only identified as “Reed”. The juror affidavit states Reed essentially presented himself as an additional expert based on his personal experience of designing and installing irrigation systems at his almond ranch. He made statements to other jurors that Cal-West “installed the system like everybody in the industry does”; that what Cal-West did was “standard” in the agricultural industry; and that once Cal-West had done its testing, ownership of the irrigation system transferred to the vineyard so anything that happened after that point was the vineyard’s responsibility (Nodal at page 2). This last assertion was particularly concerning to the Court of Appeal as Reed was presenting expertise on a matters not in evidence at trial. “Reed told the jury about the industry standard, causation, and how the vineyard owner was responsible for anything that happened” (Nodal at page 3).
The Court of Appeal found that Reed had acted as a “rogue juror”, which the Court defined as “someone who, in a mischievous way, wanders apart from fellow jurors, does not follow the court’s instructions, and violated the juror’s oath (Nodal, supra, 2019 WL 323856 at* 1, citing CACI No. 100). The Court of Appeal found that Reed’s statements potentially influenced the votes of as many of four other jurors. Such conduct raised the presumption of prejudice which Cal-West failed to rebut on appeal. Based thereon, the Court of Appeals found that the juror misconduct was prejudicial to plaintiff and therefore reversed the trial court’s judgement and remanded for a new trial.
Lesson learned – Beware of rogue jurors in California. Specifically, contact your jurors after trial and ask questions about their deliberation process. More specifically have a well prepared line of questioning to identify any potential jurors acting as “unqualified” experts improperly influencing the other jurors. Further, in the eventthe issue of juror misconduct arises and it is not in favor of your client, have well-prepared rebuttal arguments to present to the court and/or appellate court regarding lack of prejudice to the opposing party.