Jury Verdicts in Civil Trials -- Oops! Try Again.

In the final moments of a trial, there’s that nerve-racking, nail-biting moment after the jury has deliberated when the verdict is announced. Following this, the jurors are dismissed (a.k.a. discharged), which marks the end of the road as far as jurors’ civic duty is concerned—that is, with a new caveat. Confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, jurors in a civil trial can be asked to “try again” after their discharge and come up with a different verdict when there’s been a “legal impossibility” or mistake. Specifically, on June 9, the Supreme Court ruled (6-2) that a federal judge in a civil lawsuit has the inherent power, in limited circumstances, to bring back a discharged jury and ask them to further deliberate in reconsideration of an announced verdict if there has been an error in the judgment, but must do so cautiously.[1]

In Dietz v. Bouldin[2], Justice Sonia Sotomayer (writing for the majority) upheld the recall of jurors related to a Montana car accident case where the plaintiff, Rocky Dietz, had been injured by the defendant, Hillary Bouldin, when she ran a red light and crashed into Dietz’s car.[3] Bouldin admitted liability and agreed to pay $10,136 for Dietz’s medical expenses, but Dietz wanted more. Thus, the only issue at trial was what amount of future damages Bouldin owed Dietz.[4] The jury returned a verdict for Dietz but did not award any money damages, though the verdict should have been for at least $10,136 (the minimum amount stipulated by both parties).[5]

Moments after dismissing the jury, the trial judge, realizing the verdict was “legally impossible” given the parties’ stipulation, reassembled the jurors before all but one could leave the courtroom.[6][7] After confirming that the jurors had not spoken to anyone or had otherwise been exposed to any prejudicial influence about the case since being dismissed moments earlier, the trial judge instructed the jurors of the mistake in the judgment (that they should have at least awarded the stipulated amount) and ordered that they come back the next day to resume deliberations.[8] After the renewed deliberations, the jurors awarded $15,000 in damages to Dietz.[9]

Nevertheless, Dietz sought a retrial and appealed unsuccessfully to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the verdict and the court’s actions. [10][11] Dietz then filed a petition for a grant of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to determine whether a court can re-empanel a jury, without violating the parties' rights to an impartial jury and prejudicing the case.[12]

However, Sotomayor disagreed with Dietz’s argument that once discharged, jurors could not be recalled and brought back together. Sotomayer stated, “We reject this ‘Humpty Dumpty’ theory of the jury.”[13] Confirming that a judge does have the authority to recall jurors, Sotomayor cited opinions holding that district courts have the inherent authority to manage their courtrooms and dockets to resolve cases efficiently and expeditiously.[14] Similarly, Sotomayer rejected Dietz’s argument that a recall was needed, stating that recalling a jury, rather than ordering a new trial, can save “the parties, the court, and society the costly time and litigation expenses of conducting a new trial with a new set of jurors.”[15]

According to Sotomayor, courts considering whether to recall a jury must be aware that jurors could be exposed to outside influences[16] [17], and thus should take into account: “how much time has elapsed between discharge and recall, whether the jurors spoke to anyone about the case after discharge, the reaction to the verdict by courtroom spectators, and whether jurors were exposed to information about the case on the internet or their smartphones.”[18]

Sotomayor ultimately concluded that there was no abuse of discretion in the jury recall in this case, since the jury was out only a few minutes and jurors did not speak to anyone about the case after their discharge.[19] Also, Sotomayer noted that there was no indication that the verdict generated any kind of emotional reaction or that jurors had researched the case on their cellphones after discharge.[20]

Furthermore, Sotomayor cautioned that the inherent power to recall a jury must be exercised with restraint, because recalling a dismissed jury threatens the guarantee of a trial before an impartial jury.[21] “The potential for taint looms even larger when a jury is reassembled after being discharged,” said Sotomayor. “While discharged, jurors are freed from instructions from the court requiring them not to discuss the case with other outside the jury room and to avoid external prejudicial information.”[22] [23]

Despite what most legal professionals and people think, the rendering of a verdict in a civil case isn’t necessarily the end of a juror’s duties nor is the verdict final. Jurors could be asked by the judge to “try again”—which may be particularly surprising. Assuming a serious mistake exists in the jury verdict, the key is whether “any suggestion” of or opportunity for “prejudice” of the jurors has arisen after the discharge [24]—assuming of course, that jurors are truthful when polled about their outside influence or communications and have actually resisted the urge (or a reflex for most of us) to reach for their cell phones between dismissal and when a judge recalls the jury. [25]


— By Keobopha Keopong, Esq., Barnes Law

Keo Keopong is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


[1] Dietz v. Bouldin, No. 15–458, Majority Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-458_b07d.pdfhttp://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_dischargedhttp://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20160609_ap_ef0cdc95a202456782f866aa0de79673.html; http://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/282865-supreme-court-judges-have-power-to-recall-dismissed-juryhttp://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/supreme-court-rules-jury-can-be-called-back-after-it-n588971; http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htm

[2] Dietz v. Bouldin, No. 15–458, Majority Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-458_b07d.pdf

[3] http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_discharged

[4] http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_discharged; http://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/282865-supreme-court-judges-have-power-to-recall-dismissed-juryhttp://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htm

[5] http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htmhttp://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_discharged

[6] Supra n.1.

[7] Most of the jurors were still in the courthouse, but one juror had gone to get a hotel receipt. (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/supreme-court-rules-jury-can-be-called-back-after-it-n588971)

[8] Supra n.1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Note: In the dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justic Kennedy wrote that the case should have been remanded for a new trial because the jurors already had time to interact with the outside world, and thus were tainted, despite a short time having lapsed since the jurors’ dismissal and being recalled moments later. (http://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/282865-supreme-court-judges-have-power-to-recall-dismissed-jury)

[11] http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htm

[12] http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htm

[13] http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_dischargedhttp://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/282865-supreme-court-judges-have-power-to-recall-dismissed-jury

[14] Sotomayor noted that the Supreme Court has in the past held that district courts have the "inherent authority to manage their dockets and courtrooms with a view toward the efficient and expedient resolution of cases." This recognition "is consistent with recognizing an inherent power to recall a discharged jury and reempanel the jurors with curative instructions." (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/supreme-court-rules-jury-can-be-called-back-after-it-n588971; Dietz v. Bouldin, No. 15–458, Majority Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-458_b07d.pdf)

[15] http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_dischargedhttp://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htmhttp://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/282865-supreme-court-judges-have-power-to-recall-dismissed-jury

[16] http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20160609_ap_ef0cdc95a202456782f866aa0de79673.html

[17] In one example, Sotomayor noted "now-ingrained instinct to check our phones whenever possible." "So jurors may almost instantly be able to text something about the case or read reaction to the verdict on social media,"she said. "Prejudice can come through a whisper or a byte." (Dietz v. Bouldin, No. 15–458, Majority Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-458_b07d.pdfhttp://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_dischargedhttp://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20160609_ap_ef0cdc95a202456782f866aa0de79673.html)

[18] http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_discharged

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] http://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/282865-supreme-court-judges-have-power-to-recall-dismissed-jury

[22] Ibid.

[23] "Because the potential of tainting jurors and the jury process is extraordinarily high ... this power is limited in duration and scope, and must be exercised carefully to avoid any potential prejudice." (http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/06/09/discharged-juries-can-face-recall-supremes-say.htmhttp://www.abajournal.com/news/article/supreme_court_rules_federal_judges_have_inherent_power_to_recall_discharged

[24] http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/06/opinion-analysis-federal-judges-have-inherent-limited-power-to-recall-a-discharged-civil-jury/

[25] Note: In the dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy, wrote in dissent that a hard-and-fast rule against recalling juries is needed in "today's world of cellphones, wireless internet and 24/7 news coverage." (http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20160609_ap_ef0cdc95a202456782f866aa0de79673.html) Further, Thomas argued that old common law cases did not recognize such discretion once a jury was formally discharged; on balance, he concluded, the Court should adhere to that easily administered rule.  The majority’s discretionary, “multifactor” approach, Justice Thomas argued, “will only create … confusion” and “produce more litigation.” (http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/06/opinion-analysis-federal-judges-have-inherent-limited-power-to-recall-a-discharged-civil-jury/)