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PITTSBURGH NATIONAL BANK v. MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY NEW YORK (02/04/81)

decided: February 4, 1981.

PITTSBURGH NATIONAL BANK, TRUSTEE UNDER A LIFE INSURANCE TRUST AGREEMENT FOR WIFE AND CHILDREN, APPELLANT,
v.
THE MUTUAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF NEW YORK



No. 80-1-98, Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court of January 4, 1980, entered January 9, 1980, affirming Judgments at No. 155 April Term, 1978

COUNSEL

John M. Silvestri, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Carl A. Eck, James A. Mollica, Jr., Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

O'Brien, C. J., and Roberts, Nix, Larsen, Flaherty, Kauffman, JJ. Roberts and Kauffman, JJ., filed concurring opinions. Larsen, J., concurred in the result.

Author: Nix

[ 493 Pa. Page 97]

OPINION OF THE COURT

On October 12, 1972, at some time after 4:30 a. m., Carmen A. DeChesaro died of strangulation by a seat/shoulder belt after the auto he had been driving went off Noblestown Road, North Fayette Township, in Allegheny County. Dr. DeChesaro's life insurance carrier, the Mutual Life Insurance of New York (MONY), refused to pay the face amounts of two policies and accidental death benefits on one policy of life insurance issued upon the life of Dr. DeChesaro, claiming that his death occurred as a result of suicide. As a result, three actions in assumpsit were instituted by Pittsburgh National Bank (PNB), trustee under a life insurance trust agreement for the wife of the decedent and his children against appellee, MONY. The aggregate claim in dispute under these three life insurance policies was in the amount of $250,000. These suits were consolidated for trial

[ 493 Pa. Page 98]

    before a jury which subsequently rendered a verdict in favor of MONY. During the post-verdict proceedings, appellant raised the question of the alleged misconduct (during the course of the trial) of juror No. 12. A request to interrogate the juror regarding the alleged misconduct which occurred outside of the juryroom was refused. The matter was thereupon appealed by appellant to the Superior Court, 273 Pa. Super. 592, 417 A.2d 1206, which in turn affirmed the ruling of the Court of Common Pleas. This Court granted review.

The central issue at trial related to whether the death of Dr. DeChesaro occurred as a result of accident or suicide. During post-trial proceedings, appellant's trial counsel, now deceased, filed an affidavit which incorporated an excerpt from an article appearing in the local press. The affidavit asserted that juror No. 12 had, during the trial, sat in and examined an automobile similar to the vehicle driven by decedent at the time of the fatal crash. The appellant contended that there had been an unauthorized extra-judicial view of and an unsupervised and uncontrolled experiment made which may have tainted the verdict. The court's refusal to permit questioning of the alleged juror in an attempt to impeach his verdict is the issue presented for resolution. It is this issue that occasioned our grant of review in this matter.

At early common law, a motion for a new trial could be made on the basis of jury misconduct substantiated by affidavits or the testimony of jurors themselves. 8 Wigmore, Evidence, § 2352 at 696 (McNaughton ed. 1961). In 1785, however, in Vaise v. Delaval, 99 Eng.Rep. 944 (K.B. 1785), Lord Mansfield refused to consider affidavits showing that the jurors had agreed on a verdict by lot, on the ground that "a witness shall not be heard to allege his own turpitude." Lord Mansfield's rule against impeaching a verdict initially became the virtually unquestioned majority rule in the United States, but subsequently was challenged by some commentators and courts who doubted its basic assumption and disliked the occasional harsh injustice caused by putting

[ 493 Pa. Page 99]

    all verdicts and all jury misconduct beyond reach in cases where the jurors were the sole witnesses to the wrongdoing. Despite discontent with Lord Mansfield's rationale and approach, the rule still prevails in a majority of American jurisdictions. Criticism of Lord Mansfield's rule led to the development of a minority view known as the Iowa rule to the effect that jurors' affidavits will be admitted as to facts that do not inhere in the verdict. Wright v. Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Co., 20 Iowa 195, 210 (1866). Wright involved a quotient verdict discovered by juror affidavits. The court first noted that the effects of the "deliberations, conversations, debates, and judgments of the jurors" upon the jurors' minds are impossible to prove and should ...


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