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King v. Casey's General Stores, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Kansas

October 11, 2019

Donnie D. King, Appellant,
v.
Casey's General Stores, Inc., Appellee.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The jury selection process allows the parties and the court an opportunity to ask questions about potential jurors' backgrounds, viewpoints, and proclivities in an effort to ensure the individuals who serve on the jury perform their role impartially and render a verdict based on the evidence presented.

         2. The jury selection process does not require or guarantee a jury of persons completely unfamiliar with a case. Instead, jury selection is an effort to empanel jurors who, regardless of background or acquaintance, can decide the case impartially-that is, jurors who can exercise deliberate and unbiased judgment.

         3. An appellate court reviews a district court's grant or denial of a motion for new trial for an abuse of discretion. An appellate court will not find that a district court abused its discretion in denying a motion for new trial based on allegations of juror misconduct unless the party asserting the error can show (1) the presence of juror misconduct and (2) that the misconduct substantially prejudiced his or her right to a fair trial.

         4. In most civil cases, the person asserting juror misconduct has the burden to prove both that misconduct occurred and that he or she was prejudiced by the problematic activity. When a juror provides a false answer to a material question during voir dire, however, a party need not separately prove that the conduct undermined the fairness of the trial. Instead, the juror's false answer itself is prejudicial, as it deprived the parties of the opportunity to question him or her further on that point, to seek to dismiss the juror for cause, or to remove the juror with a peremptory strike.

         5. A district court's discretion in ruling on a motion for a new trial is particularly important when there is conflicting evidence regarding juror misconduct. Appellate courts do not reweigh conflicting evidence and do not reassess jurors' credibility in responding to questions during voir dire.

         6. A district court's conclusion that a party failed to prove either juror misconduct or prejudice is a negative finding. An appellate court will only overturn a negative finding when the district court arbitrarily disregarded undisputed evidence or relied on some extrinsic consideration such as bias, passion, or prejudice to reach its decision.

         7. Juror misconduct must be based on more than the failure to volunteer information a potential juror speculates is important to counsel.

          Appeal from Rice District Court; Steven E. Johnson, judge.

          Melinda G. Young, of Bretz & Young, L.L.C., of Hutchinson, for appellant.

          Ronald J. Laskowski, of The Law Office of Ronald J. Laskowski, of Topeka, for appellee.

          Before Arnold-Burger, C.J., Bruns and Warner, JJ.

          WARNER, J.

         Donnie King sued Casey's General Stores, Inc., claiming he was injured when he slipped on the ice in a parking lot of a Casey's store. On the second day of trial, after the parties empaneled a jury and presented their opening arguments, King alleged one of the jurors had spoken about a settlement offer in the case with and in front of other potential jurors during voir dire. The district court and parties investigated the allegations, and the court found no misconduct. Nevertheless, the court removed the juror out of an abundance of caution and allowed the trial to proceed.

         At the close of the trial, the jury found that King's injuries were not the fault of any party. King now appeals the district court's denial of his motion for a new trial based on the alleged juror misconduct. We affirm.

         Factual Background Giving Rise to King's Allegations of Juror Misconduct

         King slipped on ice in the parking lot of a Casey's store in Lyons, Kansas. He subsequently filed a personal injury action against Casey's. The trial originally scheduled in the case was continued at the last minute for reasons not entirely clear from the record, though the record does reflect that the parties were exploring the possibility of a settlement at that time. The case did not settle, however, and proceeded to a jury trial two weeks later.

         At the beginning of the jury selection process for the trial, the district court informed the jury pool that "[t]he whole purpose of [voir dire] is to find an impartial jury." The court further explained that attorneys for both parties would ask the potential jurors questions "to find out if you have any reason that you might be partial in some way that would disqualify you from proceeding."

         The parties commenced voir dire, with King asking the first questions. During Casey's portion of the examination, the district court excused a potential juror for cause and seated Juror J.W. on the jury panel. The parties then had the opportunity to ask J.W. questions about, among other things, his knowledge of and connection to the case.

         Casey's counsel began this process by observing that J.W. had heard all the questions asked up to that point, and asked whether there was "anything that . . . would cause [J.W.] to have [a] problem with being on this jury." J.W. indicated that he knew one of the witnesses-an employee at Casey's-because the witness previously owned a bar J.W. would visit. The attorney then asked whether there was anything about J.W.'s acquaintance with the witness that "would cause [J.W.] to be unable to decide the issues in this case fairly." J.W. answered, "No, sir." Casey's counsel followed this line of questioning by asking, "Anything else jump out that would cause you a problem deciding this case impartially?" J.W. responded, "No."

         When it was King's turn to examine J.W., his attorney's questions were limited to structural concerns-whether J.W. had strong opinions about lawyers or lawsuits and whether he would have difficulty awarding damages for pain and suffering. After a short exchange, ...


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