Providing guidance on the rules for jury selection in trials involving an insurer’s interest, the Georgia Court of Appeals this week reversed a 2015 verdict that was favorable to State Farm .
The decision centers on Georgia’s requirement that jurors must be questioned about their financial or personal interests in any insurance company with money on the line in a trial. In an opinion issued Aug. 15, 2016, Judge John Ellington made clear that litigants have the right to demand that jurors answer the questions in open court with all parties present. A jury administrator screening the pool of potential jurors before dispatching them to courtrooms doesn’t fully satisfy the requirement.
A “party that asks that qualification of prospective jurors be done during voir dire and in open court is entitled to that procedure,” Ellington wrote.
Ellington, joined by Judge Amanda Mercier and Judge Elizabeth Branch in judgment only, found fault with Cobb County State Court Judge Carl Bowers, who denied a request from plaintiffs’ counsel to question the potential jurors about their interest in State Farm. Bowers said an administrator had already posed the question in the jury assembly room and ruled out those who said they had connections to State Farm.
Jury room is ‘three-ring circus’
“The problem with qualifying jurors in the jury assembly room is it’s like a three-ring circus,” said C. Cyrus Malone III of Freisem, Macon, Swann & Malone, who raised the issue on appeal. “People are coming in. People are eating breakfast. People are leaving. Everyone’s yammering and talking and no one’s listening.”
Malone represents Barbara Mordecai in a lawsuit against Michael Cain. She suffered a broken neck when his vehicle crossed the center line and hit her car head-on, lawyers on both sides said. The jury awarded her $58,000 for her medical bills plus $15,000 for pain and suffering. The defense considered the case a win for State Farm, Mordecai’s uninsured motorist coverage provider, which defended Cain to protect its $1 million in available insurance.
Malone said he understands why defense lawyers don’t like to talk to jurors about the insurance companies whose assets they’re protecting. But, he added, “If the Georgia Supreme Court says it’s got to be done, I’m going to ask for them to do it. That’s my job.”
Trying to ‘humanize’ individual defendants
The reason defense lawyers don’t like to talk about insurance is they don’t want the jury to see deep pockets, said John Alday of Waldon Adelman Castilla Hiestand & Prout who represented Cain. It’s the same reason that State Farm’s attorneys chose to defend Cain at trial rather than the company.
“You want the jury to humanize your client. It’s hard to humanize a corporation,” Alday said.
Ellington’s decision drew heavily on the 2014 Georgia Supreme Court ruling in Conley v. Ford . In C onley , the high court held: “It is the long-standing rule in Georgia that, to ensure the right of trial by an impartial jury, a party to a civil case is entitled to have the jury qualified by the court as to any insurance carrier with a financial interest in the case. It is an equally long-standing Georgia rule that where a civil jury was not properly qualified in this way … a new trial must be ordered.”
Ellington’s opinion “seems like a straightforward application of clearly established law,” said Jeffrey Harris, a trial lawyer with Harris Penn Lowery who has been involved in post- Conley litigation.
“The problem with prequalifying is there is not a record of what was said, how it was said, who responded, etc.” Harris said. “Qualifying as to insurance needs to be done in court so you can follow up, explore the nature of the potential conflict, and have an appropriate record.”