Voir Dire and Reasonable Opportunity to Examine Prospective Jurors

Posted by David Adelstein on January 25, 2015
Appeal, Standard of Review, Voir Dire

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Voir dire, as mentioned in prior postings, is a very important part of the jury trial process.   Voir dire is when the parties have an opportunity to examine and question prospective jurors in the context of their theme and case in order to determine which six jurors (and alternate) should be sworn in on the jury panel. The objective behind voir dire is to ensure that parties have a fair and impartial jury. Williams v. State, 424 So.2d 148 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982).

 The right of parties (and even the trial court) in civil dispute to engage in voir dire is set forth in Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.431 which provides in pertinent part:

(b) Examination by Parties. The parties have the right to examine jurors orally on their voir dire. The order in which the parties may examine each juror shall be determined by the court. The court may ask such questions of the jurors as it deems necessary, but the right of the parties to conduct a reasonable examination of each juror orally shall be preserved.”

The trial court has discretion to control voir dire including limiting argumentative or repetitive examination. Leamon v. Punales, 582 So.2d 8 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991); Allen v. Se-Go Industries, Inc., 510 So.2d 1097 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987) (trial court had discretion to conduct voir dire and then limit each party to 20 minutes to examine prospective jurors); but see Carver v. Niedermayer, 920 So.2d 123 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006) (trial court limiting parties voir dire to 30 minutes to examine 19 prospective jurors was arbitrary and constituted reversible error).

A trial court’s control or limitations imposed on voir dire will not be disturbed unless the trial court abused its discretion. Sisto v. Aetna Cas. and Sur. Co., 689 So.2d 438 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). Hence, the standard of appellate review is abuse of discretion. A trial court will be deemed to abuse its discretion in controlling the voir dire process if it prevents a party of its right in conducting a reasonable examination to ensure a fair and impartial jury is selected.   A reasonable voir dire examination assists the parties “in determining whether a particular juror should be the subject of either a challenge for cause or a peremptory challenge.Carver, 920 So.2d at 124 (quotation and citation omitted). Thus, it would be an abuse of discretion to deprive a party of this right to reasonably identify prospective jurors to challenge. See id.

For instance, in the personal injury case Sisto, the trial court prevented the plaintiff from inquiring as to prospective jurors’ views concerning personal injury lawsuits and damage awards. This limitation prevented the plaintiff from going into prospective jurors’ views and feelings on non-economic damages that are largely the type of damages awarded in a personal injury case. Naturally, this is an important aspect of a personal injury case that impacted the plaintiff’s exercise of peremptory challenges or excusing a prospective juror for cause based on that juror’s feelings and views about non-economic damages awarded in the personal injury context. The jury found for the plaintiff but did not award the plaintiff any non-economic damages. The plaintiff appealed and the appellate court found that the trial court abused its discretion in limiting the plaintiff’s voir dire examination and remanded the case for a new trial.

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.

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