December 09, 2014

Supreme Court Decides Warger v. Shauers

On December 9, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Warger v. Shauers, No. 13-517, holding that Rule 606(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence bars a federal court from considering evidence of a juror's comments during deliberations that indicated that she lied during voir dire about her impartiality and ability to award damages.

Warger sued Shauers for injuries arising out of a car accident. Warger's attorney asked prospective jurors in voir dire whether they would be unable to award damages for pain and suffering or medical expenses, or whether they doubted their ability to be fair and impartial. The juror who later became the foreperson answered no to both questions.

After the jury returned a defense verdict, one of the jurors contacted Warger's attorney and told him that the foreperson had revealed during deliberations that her daughter had been at fault in a fatal motor-vehicle accident, and that a lawsuit would have ruined her daughter's life. Warger moved for a new trial, arguing that the foreperson had deliberately lied during voir dire about her impartiality and ability to award damages, and that if she had been truthful, he could have challenged her for cause. In support of the motion, Warger offered an affidavit from the juror who had contacted his attorney to report the foreperson's comments during deliberation.

The district court denied Warger's new-trial motion, holding that the affidavit was evidence "about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury's deliberations" in the context of "an inquiry into the validity of a verdict" and was therefore inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 606(b) and could not be considered. The trial court also held that none of the exceptions in Rule 606(b) — most notably the exception allowing consideration of evidence of "extraneous prejudicial evidence" — applied. The Eighth Circuit affirmed on appeal, holding that the evidence was covered by Rule 606(b) and that jurors' personal experiences do not constitute "extraneous" information under the exception to Rule 606(b).

The Supreme Court affirmed. The Court first held that Rule 606(b) applied to the affidavit, holding that a motion for a new trial based on voir dire dishonesty "plainly" involves an "inquiry into the validity of the verdict" within the meaning of Rule 606(b). The Court also rejected Warger's invocation of the canon of constitutional avoidance, holding that his right to an impartial jury remained protected despite Rule 606(b)'s removal of one means of ensuring unbiased jurors. For example, the Court noted, parties can bring juror bias to the trial court's attention before a verdict is rendered, and can invoke non-juror evidence even after a verdict is rendered. Finally, the Court held that the affidavit did not contain "extraneous prejudicial information" within the meaning of one of the exceptions to Rule 606(b)'s bar because the exception applies only to information from a source "external" to the jury, such as publicity and information related specifically to the case that the jurors are considering. The Court concluded that the affidavit at issue related to a juror's personal experiences that were brought into the jury room, which is an "internal" matter.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court

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