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LARMI v. VERMONT CASTINGS

September 23, 1997

ANNE K. WILSON and OLIVER J. LARMI, Plaintiffs
v.
VERMONT CASTINGS, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCCLURE

MEMORANDUM

 September 23, 1997

 BACKGROUND

 Plaintiffs Anne Wilson and Oliver J. Larmi filed this diversity action *fn1" to recover for injuries sustained by Wilson on November 16, 1991 while she was lighting a fire in a woodburning stove sold by defendant Vermont Castings, Inc. (Vermont Castings). Wilson suffered severe burns when her clothing caught fire. Plaintiffs alleged causes of action in strict liability (Count I) and negligence (Count II) and asserted claims for loss of consortium (Count III) and punitive damages (Count IV).

 Plaintiffs filed this action against Vermont Castings, the company which sold the stove, and Pacificorp, a west coast utility company. *fn2" Joined as third party defendants were various parties associated with the sale or manufacture of the dress Wilson was allegedly wearing at the time of the incident. The third party defendants were dismissed from the case during trial.

 Trial commenced on February 12, 1997 and concluded on March 7, 1997 with a verdict in favor of defendant Vermont Castings. Plaintiffs proceeded to trial on a strict liability theory of liability only. The jury found that the stove was defective but that such defectiveness was not a substantial factor in causing injury to plaintiff Anne Wilson.

 Before the court is a motion for a new trial filed by the plaintiffs. For the reasons which follow, the motion will be denied.

 DISCUSSION

 Allegations of juror misconduct

 Plaintiffs raise allegations of juror misconduct. They assert that during conversations post-trial between plaintiffs' counsel and jurors, counsel learned that: 1) a juror who owns a Vermont Castings stove reviewed the instruction manual to see what warnings were given and told other jurors what she had found; and 2) that the same juror told the other jurors, that she, like Wilson, found it was necessary to leave the door open slightly to get the fire going.

 We start with the general rule that jurors may not impeach their own verdict and are not competent to testify about any aspect of their thought processes or deliberations. In re Beverly Hills Fire Litigation, 695 F.2d 207, 213 (1982). Any inquiry into the deliberative process or juror's mental process is impermissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b). With one exception, Rule 606(b) precludes jurors from testifying about what occurred during deliberations. Rule 606(b) provides:

 
Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith, except that a juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror. Nor may a juror's affidavit or evidence of any statement by the juror concerning a matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying be received for these purposes.

 Fed.R.Evid. 606(b) (Emphasis supplied).

 The exception is, as stated in the rule, that a court may inquire as to whether "extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention." Id. See also: Womble v. J. C. Penney, Inc., 431 F.2d 985, 989 (6th Cir. 1970). There has been much debate as to what constitutes "extraneous information."

 Some courts and commentators have favored a definition that focuses on the physical location of the juror, stating that any influence which comes to bear outside the jury room door may be inquired into, and any influence which comes to bear inside the jury room is sacrosanct. Others have focused, not on the physical location, but on the importance of barring any inquiry into the jury's deliberative process.

 The debate is reflected in the Advisory Committee Notes for Rule 606 with the House and Senate favoring different versions of proposed amendments to Rule 606(b) in 1974. The version ultimately adopted favors drawing the dividing line between permissible and impermissible inquiry at the point where the jury's mental processes during deliberation would be revealed. That is, jurors may be asked whether any extraneous material or information was brought to their attention. *fn3" Whether the extraneous material or information originated inside or outside the jury room is immaterial.

 If jurors indicate that extraneous information was brought to their attention, the court cannot then inquire as to whether and to what extent such information affected their deliberations. Under Rule 606(b), jurors are competent to testify as to external influences upon them. Beverly Hills, 695 F.2d at 213 and Womble, 431 F.2d at 989.

 
This exception permitting inquiry into external influences upon the jury, however, is limited to identification of those extraneous sources of information-- once the existence of external influences upon the jury has been established, neither the Court nor counsel may inquire into the subjective effect of these external influences upon particular jurors. Rather, the Court must determine whether such extraneous information was prejudicial by determining how it would effect [sic] an objective "typical juror."

 Urseth v. City of Dayton, 680 F. Supp. 1084, 1089 (S.D.Ohio 1987), citing, inter alia, Owen v. Duckworth, 727 F.2d 643, 646 (7th Cir. 1984).

 Rather, it is the court's obligation then to determine whether there was reversible error, by deciding whether such information would have affected an objective "typical juror" and led him or her to a verdict based even in part on impermissible considerations or inadmissible evidence.

 Here, we will accept for purposes of deciding the motion before us that the representations made by counsel as to statements obtained from a juror are correct. We further find, for purposes of resolving plaintiffs' objection, that the information relayed to the jury by a particular juror about her Vermont Castings instruction manual was extraneous to the jury's deliberations, since it was not part of the evidence in the case. *fn4"

 The testimony as to how this particular juror routinely operated her stove was, however, not extraneous to the process. Jurors bring with them to deliberations their life experiences. When such information becomes part of the deliberative process, it becomes sacrosanct under Rule 606(b). This is not a situation in which a juror went out on his or her own, performed an experiment for the express purpose of testing the evidence, then relayed the results to the other jurors. This was simply a matter of a juror drawing upon prior life experiences and using them in the course of deliberations. It would, therefore, be improper for us to inquire further into the matter.

 We do find, however, that a limited inquiry permitted under Rule 606(b) is appropriate with respect to the statement that the same juror took it upon herself to review the instruction manual and report what she found to the jury. This was not simply a prior life experience she simply drew upon in deliberating, but rather something she did expressly, using materials available to her only outside the courtroom, for the purpose of testing or evaluating the evidence.

 Plaintiffs' theory of product defect was twofold: 1) that the stove was defectively designed because users had to leave the door slightly ajar to keep the fire going and 2) that the stove was defective because there were no warnings placed on the stove itself telling users not to leave the door ajar because it posed a risk to those nearby.

 Jurors were asked to answer two questions on liability: 1) Was the Defiant wood-burning stove defective when manufactured and sold by defendant Vermont Castings?; and 2) Was the defectiveness of the stove a substantial factor in bringing about harm to plaintiff Anne Wilson? They answered the first question "yes" and the second "no."

 The information in the manual went only to the issue of defect. It had no bearing on the issue of causation. Unlike issues of product defect, all causation issues in this case turned on facts relating to plaintiff's actions and other events the day of her tragic accident. Nowhere in the case was there any suggestion that plaintiff Wilson looked at the manual that day or any other day prior to the accident. Thus, whatever the manual ...


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