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Ward v. Morrison

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division II

December 19, 2017

JULI D. WARD, Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
SARA MORRISON, Defendant/Appellee.

          Mandate Issued: 05/09/2018

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TULSA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA HONORABLE REBECCA BRETT NIGHTINGALE, TRIAL JUDGE.

          Tye H. Smith, Charles G. Smart, CARR & CARR, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

          Neil D. Van Dalsem, TAYLOR, RYAN, MINTON & VAN DALSEM, P.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee.

          JOHN F. FISCHER, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Â¶1 Plaintiff Juli Ward appeals from the district court's order denying her motion for new trial, in which she had raised allegations of misconduct by jurors during voir dire. Ward has not demonstrated that the district court acted arbitrarily, abused its discretion, or materially and manifestly erred in denying her motion for new trial. The district court's order denying Ward's motion for new trial is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Â¶2 Ward filed this action against Defendant Sara Morrison alleging that she had sustained injuries and damages in an automobile collision resulting from Morrison's negligent operation of her vehicle. The matter was tried to a jury, which returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Morrison on August 19, 2015. On September 22, the district court entered judgment on the jury's verdict. On the following day, Ward filed a motion for new trial.

         Â¶3 Ward based her motion for new trial on 12 O.S.2011 § 651 (2). [1] She claimed she had "circumstantial evidence" that she believed was sufficient to support a finding of juror misconduct. Ward alleged that six of the jurors -- four who delivered the unfavorable verdict and two who were stricken by peremptory challenges -- had been involved in prior litigation and failed to disclose that information when responding to the district court's initial questions during voir dire. [2] In support of her motion for new trial, Ward submitted copies of district court docket entries her counsel had printed following a post-trial online search of all the jurors' names on the Oklahoma State Courts Network website. Ward claimed that the online investigation of the panel revealed district court case records containing the names, or names similar to, those of the identified jurors, indicating their involvement in litigation. She stated: "[I]t 'appears' that juror misconduct has taken place."

         Â¶4 Ward's deliberate use of the phrase "it 'appears' that juror misconduct has taken place, " acknowledged "the difficulty in conclusively knowing that the person named in the attached court records is the same as the person who sat as a juror or prospective juror in this case." Nevertheless, Ward maintained that jurors' untruthful responses deprived her of the right to adequately question them about prior litigation and inquire whether those lawsuits affected their ability to impartially consider her case. And for that reason, Ward argued that the district court was obligated to grant her a new trial, or at least set the matter for an evidentiary hearing, so that she could "subpoena those [identified] jurors and prospective jurors... to testify before the Court." Otherwise, Ward requested "direction on how the Court wishes to proceed to satisfy itself that the people named in the court documents are the same people who sat in this case."

         Â¶5 In her response and objection to Ward's motion for new trial, Morrison pointed out that, even if it might appear that certain jurors had not disclosed their complete litigation history in response to the court's general inquiry, the district court records submitted by Ward did not reveal any cases similar to Ward's or any prior relationship with either party or their counsel. Morrison also pointed out that those court records related to attempted debt collection and foreclosure (including in rem) and had resulted in default judgments or dismissals. The court records also involved domestic matters, which the district court had discussed with the jurors during voir dire:

I exclude those [from questions regarding involvement in litigation] unless something happened in your case involving a divorce or custody issue that was so traumatic that even just sitting here in the courtroom it's creating stress for you. If that's your situation, we probably want to know about it. Otherwise, I don't think you need to bring it up.

         Â¶6 The district court denied Ward's motion for new trial without a hearing. Ward now seeks review in this Court, raising two propositions of error. She claims that the district court erred and a new trial is warranted due to misconduct by the jurors. In a related proposition, Ward argues that the ...


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