From Casetext: Smarter Legal Research

McDonald v. Pless

U.S.
Jun 14, 1915
238 U.S. 264 (1915)

Summary

holding that jurors may not impeach their own verdict after the trial and stating that if inquiry into internal jury dialogue was permissible, the "frankness and freedom of discussion" of juror deliberations would be destroyed

Summary of this case from Suarez v. Mattingly

Opinion

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT.

No. 283.

Argued May 13, 1915. Decided June 14, 1915.

The Conformity Act — Rev. Stat., § 914 — does not apply to the power of the court to inquire into the conduct of jurors. The courts of each jurisdiction, state and Federal, must be in a position to adopt and enforce their own self-preserving rules. While Rev. Stat., § 914, does not apply in this case, this court recognizes the same policy that has been declared by that court and by the courts in England and in most of the States of the Union, that the testimony of a juror may not be received to prove the misconduct of himself or his colleagues in reaching a verdict. The rule, endorsed by this court in this case, that a juror may not impeach his own verdict is based upon controlling considerations of public policy which in such cases chooses the lesser of two evils. While jurors should not reach a verdict by lot, or, as in this case, by averaging the amounts suggested by each, the verdict may not be set aside on the testimony of a juror as to his misconduct or that of his colleagues. 206 F. 263, affirmed.

THE facts, which involve the validity of a verdict and judgment of the Circuit Court of the United States in an action for services, are stated in the opinion.

Mr. Julius C. Martin, with whom Mr. Thos. S. Rollins and Mr. Geo. H. Wright were on the brief, for petitioners.

Mr. Joseph W. Bailey for respondents.


Pless Winbourne, Attorneys at Law, brought suit in the Superior Court of McDowell County, North Carolina, against McDonald to recover $4,000 alleged to be due them for legal services. The case was removed to the then Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of North Carolina. There was a trial in which the jury returned a verdict for $2,916 in favor of Pless Winbourne. The defendant McDonald moved to set aside the verdict on the ground that when the jury retired the Foreman suggested that each juror should write down what he thought the plaintiffs were entitled to recover, that the aggregate of these amounts should be divided by 12 and that the quotient should be the verdict to be returned to the court. To this suggestion all assented.

The motion further averred that when the figures were read out it was found that one juror was in favor of giving plaintiffs nothing, eight named sums ranging from $500 to $4,000 and three put down $5,000. A part of the jury objected to using $5,000 as one of the factors inasmuch as the plaintiffs were only suing for $4,000. But the three insisted that they had as much right to name a sum above $4,000 as the others had to vote for an amount less than that set out in the declaration. The various amounts were then added up and divided by 12. But by reason of including the three items of $5,000 the quotient was so much larger than had been expected that much dissatisfaction with the result was expressed by some of the jury. Others however insisted on standing by the bargain and the protesting jurors finally yielded to the argument that they were bound by the previous agreement, and the quotient verdict was rendered accordingly.

The defendant further alleged in his motion that the jurors refused to file an affidavit but stated that they were willing to testify to the facts alleged, provided the court thought it proper that they should do so. At the hearing of the motion one of the jurors was sworn as a witness, but the court refused to allow him to testify on the ground that a juror was incompetent to impeach his own verdict. That ruling was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. (206 F. 263.) The case was then brought here by writ of error.

On the argument here it was suggested that it was not necessary to consider the question involved as an original proposition, since the decision of the Federal court was in accordance with the rule in North Carolina ( Purcell v. Railroad Co., 119 N.C. 739) and therefore binding under Rev. Stat., § 914, which requires that `the practice, pleadings, and forms and modes of procedure in the Federal courts shall conform as near as may be to those existing in the State within which such Federal courts are held.' But neither in letter nor in spirit does the Conformity Act apply to the power of the court to inquire into the conduct of jurors who had been summoned to perform a duty in the administration of justice and who, for the time being, were officers of the court. The conduct of parties, witnesses and counsel in a case, as well as the conduct of the jurors and officers of the court may be of such a character as not only to defeat the rights of litigants but it may directly affect the administration of public justice. In the very nature of things the courts of each jurisdiction must each be in a position to adopt and enforce their own self-preserving rules. Nudd v. Burrows, 91 U.S. 427 (4), 441; Railroad Co. v. Horst, 93 U.S. 291, 300; Grimes Co. v. Malcom, 164 U.S. 483, 490; Lincoln v. Power, 151 U.S. 436, 442; Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U.S. 20, 33; Liverpool c. Co. v. Friedman, 133 F. 716.

But though Rev. Stat., § 914, does not make the North Carolina decisions controlling in the Federal court held in that State, we recognize the same public policy which has been declared by that court by those in England and most of the American States. For while by statute in a few jurisdictions, and by decisions in others, the affidavit of a juror may be received to prove the misconduct of himself and his fellows, the weight of authority is that a juror cannot impeach his own verdict. The rule is based upon controlling considerations of a public policy which in these cases chooses the lesser of two evils. When the affidavit of a juror, as to the misconduct of himself or the other members of the jury, is made the basis of a motion for a new trial the court must choose between redressing the injury of the private litigant and inflicting the public injury which would result if jurors were permitted to testify as to what had happened in the jury room.

These two conflicting considerations are illustrated in the present case. If the facts were as stated in the affidavit, the jury adopted an arbitrary and unjust method in arriving at their verdict, and the defendant ought to have had relief, if the facts could have been proved by witnesses who were competent to testify in a proceeding to set aside the verdict. But let it once be established that verdicts solemnly made and publicly returned into court can be attacked and set aside on the testimony of those who took part in their publication and all verdicts could be, and many would be, followed by an inquiry in the hope of discovering something which might invalidate the finding. Jurors would be harassed and beset by the defeated party in an effort to secure from them evidence of facts which might establish misconduct sufficient to set aside a verdict. If evidence thus secured could be thus used, the result would be to make what was intended to be a private deliberation, the constant subject of public investigation — to the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference.

The rule on the subject has varied. Prior to 1785 a juror's testimony in such cases was sometimes received though always with great caution. In that year Lord Mansfield, in Vaise v. Delaval, 1 T.R. 11 refused to receive the affidavit of jurors to prove that their verdict had been made by lot. That ruling soon came to be almost universally followed in England and in this country. Subsequently, by statute in some States, and by decisions in a few others, the juror's affidavit as to an overt act of misconduct, which was capable of being controverted by other jurors, was made admissible. And, of course, the argument in favor of receiving such evidence is not only very strong but unanswerable — when looked at solely from the standpoint of the private party who has been wronged by such misconduct. The argument, however, has not been sufficiently convincing to induce legislatures generally to repeal or to modify the rule. For, while it may often exclude the only possible evidence of misconduct, a change in the rule "would open the door to the most pernicious arts and tampering with jurors." "The practice would be replete with dangerous consequences." "It would lead to the grossest fraud and abuse" and "no verdict would be safe." Cluggage v. Swan, 4 Binn. 155; Straker v. Graham, 4 M. W. 721.

There are only three instances in which the subject has been before this court. In United States v. Reid, 12 How. 361, 366, the question, though raised, was not decided because not necessary for the determination of the case. In Clyde Mattox v. United States, 146 U.S. 140, 148, such evidence was received to show that newspaper comments on a pending capital case had been read by the jurors. Both of those decisions recognize that it would not be safe to lay down any inflexible rule because there might be instances in which such testimony of the juror could not be excluded without "violating the plainest principles of justice." This might occur in the gravest and most important cases; and without attempting to define the exceptions, or to determine how far such evidence might be received by the judge on his own motion, it is safe to say that there is nothing in the nature of the present case warranting a departure from what is unquestionably the general rule, that the losing party cannot, in order to secure a new trial, use the testimony of jurors to impeach their verdict. The principle was recognized and applied in Hyde v. United States, 225 U.S. 347, which, notwithstanding an alleged difference in the facts, is applicable here.

The suggestion that, if this be the true rule, then jurors could not be witnesses in criminal cases, or in contempt proceedings brought to punish the wrongdoers is without foundation. For the principle is limited to those instances in which a private party seeks to use a juror as a witness to impeach the verdict.

Judgment affirmed.


Summaries of

McDonald v. Pless

U.S.
Jun 14, 1915
238 U.S. 264 (1915)

holding that jurors may not impeach their own verdict after the trial and stating that if inquiry into internal jury dialogue was permissible, the "frankness and freedom of discussion" of juror deliberations would be destroyed

Summary of this case from Suarez v. Mattingly

holding that allowing juror interviews would "make what was intended to be a private deliberation, the constant subject of public investigation — to the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference"

Summary of this case from Harris Corporation v. Independent Technologies

holding that a court could not receive jurors' testimony that they had determined the amount of damages by resorting to a "quotient verdict" — that is, by having each juror write down the amount of damages he thought was proper, then dividing the total by twelve

Summary of this case from State v. Titus

upholding in a civil case the trial court's refusal to allow inquiry into the jury's method of arriving at a damages award

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Boender

denying defendant's request for post-verdict discovery

Summary of this case from Majors v. State

recognizing that jurors should be protected from being "harassed and beset by the defeated party in an effort to secure from them evidence of facts which might establish misconduct sufficient to set aside a verdict."

Summary of this case from U.S. v. Venske

In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 35 S.Ct. 783, 59 L.Ed. 1300 (1915), the Court affirmed the exclusion of juror testimony about objective events in the jury room.

Summary of this case from Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 35 S.Ct. 783, 59 L.Ed. 1300 (1915), this Court adopted a strict no-impeachment rule for cases in federal court. McDonald involved allegations that the jury had entered a quotient verdict—that is, that it had calculated a damages award by taking the average of the jurors' suggestions.

Summary of this case from Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

warning that the use of juror testimony about misconduct during deliberations would "make what was intended to be a private deliberation, the constant subject of public investigation—to the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference"

Summary of this case from Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

noting that finality of verdicts supports the rule

Summary of this case from Estrada v. Scribner

In McDonald, it was alleged that the jury neglected its duty to determine damages and instead used an improper quotient method, in which the damages were determined by adding each juror's individual damage estimate and dividing by the total number of jurors.

Summary of this case from Robinson v. Polk

noting that finality of verdicts supports the rule

Summary of this case from Sassounian v. Roe

In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 35 S.Ct. 783, 59 L.Ed. 1300, a civil case involving a verdict by lot, the Supreme Court held that a juror may not impeach his own verdict.

Summary of this case from GAFFORD v. WARDEN, U.S. P., LEAVENWORTH, KA

stating that jury deliberates were "intended to be [] private" and that making them public would subject jurors to harassment and destroy "all frankness and freedom of discussing and conference"

Summary of this case from Hersi v. Marquis

noting that public investigation of juror deliberations would lead to "the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference"

Summary of this case from Ellison v. Ryan

noting that public investigation of juror deliberations would lead to "the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference"

Summary of this case from Cota v. Ryan

noting that public investigation of juror deliberations would lead to "the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion and conference"

Summary of this case from Harrod v. Ryan

explaining that there are public values that are promoted by excluding the testimony of jurors

Summary of this case from Honken v. United States

noting that the finality of verdicts necessarily precludes using evidence of jurors' mental processes to impeach verdicts

Summary of this case from Daniil v. Zhuk

In McDonald, the Court declined to adopt an "inflexible rule" barring post-trial testimony by a juror, since "there might be instances in which such testimony... could not be excluded without `violating the plainest principles of justice.'"

Summary of this case from U.S. Football League v. Natl. Football L.

In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 267, 35 S.Ct. 783, 784, 59 L.Ed. 1300 (1915), on motion for a new trial, a juror was not permitted to testify on the ground that a juror was incompetent to impeach his own verdict.

Summary of this case from United States v. Kohne

In McDonald and United States Fidelity Guaranty Co. v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, on page 269, 35 S. Ct. 783, 785, 59 L. Ed. 1300, the court said, with reference to the rule that verdicts may not be impeached by jurors: "The suggestion that, if this be the true rule, then jurors could not be witnesses in criminal cases, or in contempt proceedings brought to punish the wrongdoers, is without foundation. For the principle is limited to those instances in which a private party seeks to use a juror as a witness to impeach the verdict."

Summary of this case from United States v. Clark

discussing need to prevent “what was intended to be private deliberation” from being made subject to public scrutiny “to the destruction of all frankness and freedom of discussion”

Summary of this case from McQuarrie v. State

In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 267-68, (1915) the United States Supreme Court dates the rule back to 1785, in the English case of Vaise v. Delaval, ITerm. Rep. 11, 99 Eng. Rep. 944 (K.B. 1785) in which the court refused to receive the affidavit of jurors to prove that their verdict had been made by lot.

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. Abnee

In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 267–68, 35 S.Ct. 783, 59 L.Ed. 1300, (1915) the United States Supreme Court dates the rule back to 1785, in the English case of Vaise v. Delaval, 1 Term. Rep. 11, 99 Eng. Rep. 944 (K.B.1785) in which the court refused to receive the affidavit of jurors to prove that their verdict had been made by lot.

Summary of this case from Commonwealth v. Abnee
Case details for

McDonald v. Pless

Case Details

Full title:McDONALD AND UNITED STATES FIDELITY AND GUARANTY COMPANY v . PLESS

Court:U.S.

Date published: Jun 14, 1915

Citations

238 U.S. 264 (1915)
35 S. Ct. 783

Citing Cases

Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

Later, however, the Court rejected the more lenient Iowa rule. In McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 35 S.Ct.…

United States v. Dioguardi

This Court will not accept their own disclosure of forbidden quotient verdicts in damage cases. McDonald v.…