Is using Facebook during a wrongful death trial an ethics issue or a legal issue?
This is one of those cases that make waves — not so much for the case itself, but for the presence of and use of social media during a trial by the jury foreman.
The case itself related to the wrongful death of a woman at the hands of a medical practitioner. The statement of claim filed on behalf of the plaintiffs in 2009, alleged careless and negligent treatment of their mother in 2008. The sons were under the age of 18 at the time the lawsuit was filed, and therefore the father filed on their behalf. They also asked the court for damages in excess of $25,000.
The case did go to trial in Oct 2012, and the jury found in favor of the defendants, and further awarding court costs to the plaintiffs. Many thought that would be the end of the case. It wasn’t. About a month later, the plaintiff’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial. Evidently one member of the jury did not reveal, despite being questioned, that she and her deceased husband had arterial stents. There was also the matter of the court possibly erring by denying the plaintiffs five challenges to ineligible and unqualified jurors from the pool.
Those issues aside, the biggest objection, and leading reason to call for a new, fair trial, was the jury foreman’s use of social media during the course of the trial. He regularly posted on Facebook about being on the jury, made jokes about wanting booze and about how he was instrumental in getting a verdict delivered in under an hour.
On review by a judge, who commented the actions of the jury foreman were not pleasing to the court, the finding for the defendant was allowed to stand. It was allowed to stand because despite the man openly using social media to tell the whole world about his part in the trial, he did not reveal any case details, discuss any of the evidence presented in court and did not express an opinion on the case. This case may yet move forward to a higher court to determine the role of social media use in court cases and what is or is not acceptable for jurors while on duty during a trial.
While this might seem like a minor issue, because everyone uses social media these days and thinks nothing of it, it has ramifications beyond the obvious. Court cases are not to be discussed in public. Evidence is not to be openly talked about in social media settings. Opinions or thoughts relating to the trial, the facts, the deceased or the defendant are not public fodder. Talking about a trial in progress could prejudice the outcome and drastically affect the course of justice. Because those instructions, to not speak about the deliberations are so important, this case is contrary to a number of cases around the country that have resulted in new trials due to jurors’ use of social media.
Social media is far too prevalent in this day and age, and there are just some places it should not be allowed.
Brooks Schuelke is an Austin personal injury attorney with Perlmutter & Schuelke LLP. Contact an Austin injury lawyer at Civtrial.com or (512) 476-4944.