American Power Products, Inc. v. CSK Auto, Inc., 731 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 28 (February 5, 2016) (J. Brutinel)
IMPROPER BUT OBJECTIVELY NONPREJUDICIAL STATEMENT BY BAILIFF TO JUROR NOT GROUNDS FOR NEW TRIAL AND NO EVIDENTIARY HEARING REQUIRED WHEN THERE EXISTS NO SIGNIFICANT FACT QUESTION
After a twelve day trial on a breach of contract case with 24 witnesses and 164 exhibits (4,000+ pages), a juror asked the bailiff how long deliberations usually last. Without checking with anyone first the bailiff responded “an hour or two should be plenty.” The trial court denied the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial based upon the communication refusing to hold an evidentiary hearing. The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled an evidentiary hearing was required. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the trial court and reversed and remanded the court of appeals.
It is uncontroverted that Ariz. R. Civ. P. 39(e), (g) (communications by bailiff to deliberating jury impermissible except to ask if they have a verdict) was violated by this ex parte communication. However, because there was no dispute as to what was said to the jurors there was no need for an evidentiary hearing. It would be impermissible under Arizona Rule of Evidence 606(b) to hold such a hearing for the purpose of asking jurors “about any incident that occurred during the jury's deliberations; the effect of anything on [a ] juror's vote or any juror's mental process.”
Accordingly, in order to determine if the plaintiff was prejudiced, the court must determine whether the communication would likely prejudice an hypothetical average juror. In so doing the court is to consider factors such as “whether the communication related to the evidence presented, the applicable law, or the ultimate issue in the case, or whether it clearly interfered with the jury's decision-making process.” Here, the communication was not “objectively prejudicial” in that it did not favor one party over another nor address any substantive or evidentiary issues in the case.