Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. (D.C. Civil No. 84-03885).
Before: Mansmann, Greenberg and Lewis, Circuit Judges.
In this appeal we are asked to decide whether the district court erred in denying defendants' motions for a mistrial based on the jury's inadvertent exposure to media coverage of a $30 million verdict awarded in a similar case. The defendant, the Borough of Kenilworth, argues that the jurors' knowledge of the exact damage award in that case, involving similar injuries as in this one, provided the jury with a prejudicially impermissible yardstick by which to measure the plaintiff's claim for damages. Because the trial court did not conduct an adequate voir dire, and because we cannot know what the jurors' responses would have been to a searching inquiry based on objective criteria, we will vacate the judgment entered on the jury verdict and remand for a new trial.
Mark Waldorf was rendered a C6-C7 level quadriplegic as a result of a motor vehicle accident which occurred in the Borough of Kenilworth on November 17, 1982. On September 21, 1984, Waldorf filed a federal court action seeking damages against the drivers of the vehicles involved, the Borough and various Borough officials. The district court had diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). The first trial of the case resulted in a jury verdict for Waldorf, against the Borough and other defendants, in the amount of $8.4 million. On appeal to us, we reversed and remanded for a new trial, Waldorf v. Shuta, 896 F.2d 723 (3d Cir. 1990).
On remand, the trial was bifurcated on the issues of liability and damages. The parties agreed to try the issue of damages first; following the trial on damages, the Borough stipulated to liability. At the trial's outset, the district court carefully and explicitly instructed the jury to avoid news stories concerning other accidents. Specifically, the jury was to:
try to avoid reading newspaper articles that maybe involve accidents. And, in particular, has anyone read the Newark Star-Ledger today? (No response.) All right. In particular there's an article there that speaks about a specific type of injury. I ask that you avoid reading that article and the reason that I ask you to do that is because you're going to decide this case based upon the testimony that's going to be presented in this case and not by any statement made by some other extraneous source . . . .
On September 24, 1992, the last day of trial, the Borough moved for a mistrial due to the jury's exposure to a potentially prejudicial news report. At the Conclusion of trial, on the evening before closing arguments were to be made to the jury, during its eleven o'clock news program, WNBC reported that a jury, that day, had awarded $30 million to a New York City high school student from Queens, New York, who was rendered a quadriplegic as a result of a shooting which occurred at school. The WNBC television news coverage of the verdict included excerpts from a video, "a day in the life" of Stanley Pacheco. The video showed Mr. Pacheco performing routine daily tasks -- being dressed by attendants, being fed cereal by another attendant, while a television reporter, in the background, stated that Mr. Pacheco was paralyzed from the neck down. The $30 million award to Pacheco was described by the WNBC reporter as a "fortune." On the next morning, September 25, 1992, immediately prior to closing arguments, counsel for the Borough brought this situation to the court's attention.
The district court then questioned the jury as a group in the jury room in order to determine which members of the jury had been exposed to the news coverage of the Queens verdict. The district court asked the jurors the following question en banc: "Did anybody see TV coverage last night where there was a Discussion of a case in New York City?" (A. 174-175). Two of the jurors, Jurors Ray Thomson and Tanksley, indicated that they had seen the television news report.
Juror Noweck indicated that he had inadvertently read about the Queens case in the newspaper.*fn1 On the morning of September 25, 1992, the day the jury ultimately reached its verdict, the New York Post devoted one paragraph to coverage of the same story. The New York Post account of the verdict reported, "In a precedent-setting verdict, a Queens jury ordered the Board of Education to pay close to $30 million in damages." (A. 63).*fn2 Another juror, Jim Cosmis, indicated he, too, had read about the case in the morning newspaper.
Significantly, these media reports of the Queens verdict placed before the jury the very same type of information the district court had excluded as inadmissible. At trial, the Borough sought to call, as witnesses, three quadriplegics with functional capabilities similar or comparable to Plaintiff Waldorf's capabilities. The ...