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Juror's Googling Results in New Trial

The South Dakota Supreme Court has ruled that a judge was justified in throwing out a defense verdict and ordering a new trial in a wrongful death case because of a juror's Google searches. In a Sept. 16 opinion, Russo v. Takata Corporation, the court affirmed the order of a new trial in a case brought against a seat-belt manufacturer by the estate of a 16-year-old girl who was killed after she was thrown from her vehicle.

What is interesting about this case is that the Googling took place before the juror was impaneled and consisted of just two brief searches. In May 2007, the then-prospective juror, Shawn Flynn, received a summons to jury duty that identified the names of the parties and cautioned, "Do not seek out evidence regarding this case."

Never having heard of Takata and wondering "what they did," Flynn searched the name on his home computer and found its home page, where he learned that it was a seat belt and airbag manufacturer. He then searched the name TK Holdings, also listed on the summons as a defendant, and found it was the American subsidiary of Takata.

Once he was chosen as a member of the panel and sworn in as a juror, Flynn conducted no further searches. During deliberations after the 19-day trial, one juror asked whether Takata had ever been sued before for defects in its seat belts. Flynn responded that he had done a Google search of the company but did not find any lawsuits during his search. Another juror told Flynn that they were not supposed to consider outside information. There followed a brief but heated exchange about this among several jurors, but nothing was reported to the trial judge.

After the jury returned a verdict for Takata, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a new trial based on the discussion in the jury room of Flynn's Google searches. After a hearing on the motion, the trial judge concluded that the introduction of the information about Flynn's searches impacted the jurors' decision as to whether the product was defective and whether Takata had notice of any defects. The judge vacated the verdict and ordered a new trial.

In affirming the trial judge's order, the Supreme Court cautioned that its decision was not to be read as setting a broad rule. "Today we announce no hard and fast rule that all such types of internet research by a juror prior to trial without notice to the court and counsel automatically doom a jury's verdict. Rather, as we do in such close cases, we give deference to the trial court, which had the distinct advantage of being present throughout the nineteen-day trial."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on September 25, 2009 at 02:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

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