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Missouri jurors will wait while their honesty is checked

Tuesday, July 6, 2010 | 1:09 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS  — People called to jury service in Missouri will have something new to do if they get chosen to hear a civil trial: wait an hour or two while their honesty is checked.

Beginning Jan. 1, judges must give attorneys time to research the jurors on the statewide court website to see if they were truthful in the selection process when asked about litigation in their past.

Mike Devereaux, the St. Louis jury supervisor, said waiting is already a big issue to people called to serve. "They never like that," he said. "The biggest gripe I get from jurors is about sitting around waiting. The jurors are usually unaware of what the delays are about. They just have to sit in the hallway."

One St. Louis resident, Jason Lange, 33, said his three days of jury service several years ago were full of delays. "I feel bad for the people who don't get paid (by their employers) for jury service," Lange said. "A couple more hours of waiting costs them money."

The Missouri Supreme Court issued the order last week.

In March, the state's high court had ordered a new trial in a medical malpractice suit in Kansas City. After a six-day trial that ended with a verdict for the defendant, the plaintiff's attorneys discovered that a juror did not disclose that she had been sued three times in the previous three years, including a personal injury case.

Now, attorneys must be given time to look up each person on Case.net, a public online listing of Missouri cases, and to make any objection about a juror's honesty before the first witness takes the stand.

The process is intended to save time for the court and lawyers in the long run.

Involvement in litigation does not preclude anyone from serving on a jury, but lawyers for both sides typically inquire to help them decide which people to challenge.

If someone has filed a personal injury lawsuit in the past, he will likely be more sympathetic to a plaintiff, explained John Wallach, a personal injury lawyer in Clayton.

There may be many reasons why prospective jurors don't speak up, lawyers said. Some may have forgotten being sued years before, for example, or feel embarrassed about being a party to a sexual harassment case.

"Some people may be hesitant to get up in front of a room of 50 people and say they've been sued," Wallach said.

The rule may cut into the advantage of large law firms that already may use paralegals or interns to research backgrounds, and of insurance companies that may have access to large databases of people who have made claims or filed lawsuits.

Criminal cases are not included in the rule. Convicted felons are not allowed to serve as jurors in Missouri anyway.

A Case.net search will reveal the date, type and disposition of lawsuit but not many details. It does not include cases in federal court or other states, and not even all Missouri counties. Prospective jurors with common names, or whose names have changed, may fall through the cracks.

"It's not going to catch everything, but it is going to go a long way to catch a lot of it," said James Krispin, a lawyer who specializes in civil litigation.

He said he does not expect attorneys to share search results with one another. "It's a battle," Krispin said. "Just pointing out a juror with a small-claims action from years ago, you are tipping your hand to the other side that you think it's significant."

The rule says:

Attorneys must submit beforehand any questions they want to ask potential jurors about their litigation history.

Judges must give attorneys enough time to conduct a "reasonable investigation" on Case.net before the jury is sworn in.

If an attorney finds a discrepancy with what a prospective juror said, the judge will question that juror in private.

Attorneys can ask to have that juror removed from service.

Neither side will be allowed to appeal a case on a complaint about a juror's honesty regarding past court cases unless the attorney has completed the pretrial steps.

The Supreme Court is taking written public comments on the rule and could still tweak the details before it takes effect, said Beth Riggert, a spokeswoman for the court. The mailing address is 207 W. High St., Jefferson City, Mo. 65101.

"They welcome any input on the rule," she said.


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