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Dietz v. Bouldin

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

July 24, 2015

ROCKY DIETZ, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
HILLARY BOULDIN, Defendant-Appellee

Argued and Submitted February 4, 2015, Seattle, Washington

Page 1094

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Montana. D.C. No. 2:11-cv-00036-RWA. Richard W. Anderson, Magistrate Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY [*]

Jury Trial

The panel affirmed the district court's judgment, and held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in reempaneling a jury shortly after dismissal where the jurors were not exposed to any outside influence that would compromise their ability to fairly reconsider the verdict.

The panel held that the standard of review for a district court's decision to re-empanel discharged jurors was abuse of discretion. As a matter of first impression in the circuit, the panel held that in limited circumstances, a district court may recall a jury shortly after it has been dismissed to correct an error in the verdict, but only after making an appropriate inquiry to determine that the jurors were not exposed to any outside influences that would compromise their ability to fairly reconsider the verdict. The panel further held that the record supported the district court's finding that the jurors were not exposed to prejudicial outside influences during the brief period of the dismissal.

Concurring in the judgment, Judge Bea agreed with the majority that the district court did not err in re-empaneling the jury in this case. Judge Bea, however, did not agree that the district court judge should be required to undertake " an appropriate inquiry" into whether prejudicial influences tainted the jury.

Geoffrey C. Angel (argued), Angel Law Firm, Bozeman, Montana, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

John F. Bohyer and Jesse Beaudette (argued), Bohyer, Erickson, Beaudette & Tranel PC, Missoula, Montana, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before: Raymond C. Fisher, Carlos T. Bea and Mary H. Murguia, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 1095

Raymond C. FISHER, Circuit Judge:

We consider, as a matter of first impression in this circuit, whether a jury can be recalled shortly after it has been ordered discharged. Joining the majority of circuit courts to have decided the issue, we hold a district court may reempanel a jury shortly after dismissal, but only if, during the period of dismissal, the jurors were not exposed to any outside influences that would compromise their ability to fairly reconsider the verdict.

BACKGROUND

Hillary Bouldin's vehicle collided with Rocky Dietz's in August 2009. Dietz subsequently filed a negligence complaint in Montana state court against Bouldin for " injuries including to his low back" and " physical pain, suffering, grief, anxiety and a loss of course of life" stemming from the accident. The case was subsequently removed to federal court.

Before trial, Bouldin admitted he was at fault and that Dietz was injured as a result of the accident. The parties stipulated to $10,136 in past expenses Dietz incurred as a result of the accident. The only disputed issue at trial was the amount of future damages Bouldin owed Dietz. Dietz presented evidence he would need regular physical therapy, medication and injections to alleviate the pain he was experiencing following the accident. Bouldin emphasized that Dietz had a long list of medical conditions predating the collision, that only some of his medical expenses were related to the accident and that he was exaggerating the amount of treatment he would actually seek.

During closing argument, Bouldin's counsel reminded the jury of the stipulated amount of past damages and explained that its award additionally had to include the reasonable value of necessary care, treatment and services received and those reasonably probable to be required in the future. He suggested the jury award Dietz an amount " somewhere between ten and $20,000, depending on what you feel his relief is, what level of pain he has, and how his condition has been affected by this automobile accident."

During deliberations, a juror sent the following question to the judge: " Has the $10,136 medical expenses been paid; and if so, by whom?" The court responded that the information was not germane to the jury's verdict. Speaking to the parties' counsel, the court then observed:

What I'm wondering -- [l]et's just do a little speculating on our own. If we end up with a verdict in less than that amount, and I can't believe that would happen, but if this is what we're heading toward, that would be grounds for a mistrial and I don't want a mistrial. Do you think they understand clearly, after the argument and the instructions, that their verdict may not be less than that amount?

Bouldin's counsel said he had made the point " crystal clear," and the court agreed. Accordingly, the court took no further action to instruct the jury to award at least $10,136 in damages. The jury returned with a verdict, finding for Dietz but awarding him damages in the amount of $0. The court asked counsel if they would like the jury polled, and both declined. The court then thanked the jurors for their time, told them they were " free to

Page 1096

go," discharged them and recessed. Realizing the verdict was a legal impossibility given the stipulated damages exceeded $10,000, the court quickly called back the jurors, noting for the record it was doing so " moments after having dismissed them." It told the jurors their verdict violated the stipulation, inquired whether any of them had experienced undue outside influence in the period following dismissal and, when they collectively responded they had not, ordered them to reconvene the following morning to issue a new verdict consistent with the stipulation. Dietz objected to this procedure and moved for a mistrial, arguing recall was not appropriate because the jury had been dismissed. The jury again found for Dietz and awarded him damages in the sum of $15,000. Dietz timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

Dietz argues the district court erred by recalling the jury after it had already been dismissed. Given the circumstances here, where the court promptly recalled the jurors, questioned them and found they were not exposed to prejudicial influence during the brief duration of their dismissal, we ...


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