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Domeracki v. Humble Oil & Refining Co.

decided: May 18, 1971.


Hastie, Chief Judge, and Seitz and Aldisert, Circuit Judges.

Author: Aldisert


ALDISERT, Circuit Judge.

A judgment of $270,982 was entered on a jury verdict against appellant shipowner and in favor of appellee, a longshoreman who sustained personal injury while loading a ship in port. The jury accepted appellee's contention that his injury was caused by the unseaworthy condition of the vessel and by the failure of the shipowner to provide a safe place to work.*fn1

Appellant concedes the severity of the injury: appellee suffered herniated discs in his back; only one was corrected by surgery, while the other caused continuing disability. Past loss of earnings amounted to $28,000, medical expenses totaled $3,000, and loss of future earning power over a projected 28 year period approximated $100,000. Appellant contends, however, that the verdict was tainted, and excessive, because the jury (1) failed to adhere to the court's instructions, (2) rendered its verdict under the influence of passion and prejudice purposely induced by appellee's counsel, and (3) deliberated under the mistaken impression that the award would be subject to federal income tax obligations.


The first assignment of error relates to an incident that occurred in the courtroom at the time the verdict was received. The jury had been given special written interrogatories which, together with the replies, were handed by the forelady to the deputy marshal for transmittal to the court. In submitting the interrogatories, however, the forelady inadvertently included two sheets of paper containing certain written matter. It is conceded that these papers were not a part of the jury's verdict and probably constituted scratch paper utilized by the forelady or others during deliberations in the jury room. The trial judge notified counsel that "these papers had inadvertently come into my possession and that I had glanced at them and seen some figures which would cause me to wonder whether they [the jury] had followed the Court's instructions precisely." Subsequently, the court declared: "Upon further reflection I think that what I did was improper in looking at what the jury did, and rather than compound that error, I have impounded these papers. * * * I happen to know, by that inadvertent glance at that piece of paper, how they arrived at [the verdict]. I shall have to do my best to wipe clean from my mind that information which I now have in my head. * * *"

Appellant then moved for a new trial, grounding its motion on the theory that a new trial should be granted when it is apparent that the jury has not followed the court's instructions on damages. Although we do not quarrel with this statement of the controlling abstract principle, the circumstances here preclude our reaching this question. Neither a trial court nor an appellate court has the authority to inquire into the jury's decisional processes, even when information pertaining to the deliberations is volunteered by one of the jurors. "After reception of the verdict and discharge of the jury, testimony of jurors should be incompetent, under the no-impeachment rule * * *, to illuminate the suspicion [of a failure to follow instructions] by inquiring into their mental processes." 6A Moore's Federal Practice ยง 59.08 [4], at 3804.

Long settled considerations of public policy dictate "that mistake of the testimony, misapprehension of the law, error in computation, irregular or illegal methods of arriving at damages, unsound reasons or improper motives, misconduct during the trial or in the Jury Room, cannot be shown by the evidence of the jurors themselves, as the ground of disturbing the verdict, duly rendered," Capen v. Stoughton, 82 Mass. (16 Gray) 364, 366 (1860).*fn2 The sound justification for the concept that "[such] matters all inhere in the verdict itself," Chicago, R.I. & Pac. RR v. Speth, 404 F.2d 291, 295 (8 Cir. 1968), is the salutary desire to protect participants in the jury system from being "harassed and beset by the defeated party. * * * If evidence [obtained from jurors] could be thus used, the result would be to make what was intended to be a private deliberation, the constant subject of public investigation -- to the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference." McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 267-268, 35 S. Ct. 783, 784, 59 L. Ed. 1300 (1915). In short, the district court, 312 F. Supp. 374, properly concluded that the information to which he accidentally became privy was incompetent to provide a basis for a finding that the jury failed to adhere to the court's instructions.


Appellant also insists that a new trial should be granted due to the prejudice allegedly created when appellee's counsel suggested that the shipowner would have recourse against any third party responsible for the unseaworthy condition of the ship. Upon objection, the court instructed the jury to "ignore" such remarks: "Members of the jury, you are trying one law suit. You are not here to determine whether the ship has any rights against anybody else." The court previously had told the jury: "You are here to try the case of Marion Domeracki against the Humble Oil and Refining Company. That is the only case you are here to try. Whatever reference may have been made to other litigation, just disregard it. This is the case you are here to try, you are sworn to try, and this is the only one I want you to consider." We are satisfied that these cautionary statements were adequate and that no prejudicial error resulted.

We also find no merit in appellant's additional contention that the jury was improperly influenced by an oblique reference during appellee's closing argument to the financial capacity of Humble Oil.*fn3 See United States v. Socony-Vacuum, 310 U.S. 150, 237-242, 60 S. Ct. 811, 84 L. Ed. 1129 (1939). In any case, appellant registered no timely objection to the remark.*fn4 Id. at 239, 60 S. Ct. 811. See Fed.R.Civ.Pro. 46.


Appellant submitted, and the district court refused, the following ...

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