Jurors’ Use of Cell Phones Can Overturn Verdict

In this era of widespread use of cell phones, it’s not surprising that some jurors may feel tempted – despite warnings from trial judges – to use their phone to look up the meaning of legal terms during jury deliberations.

We search online at the drop of a hat to satisfy any curiosity these days. (When was Katy Perry’s first concert? What year did Atlanta host the Olympics? Who was the leading NFL passer in 2005? When did Dale Murphy win back-to-back MVP awards with the Braves?)

Why not do a quick search for a definition of a legal term? What’s the harm?

Researching information outside of the courtroom isn’t permitted because judges are concerned this could unfairly prejudice parties in a case. Jurors should only consider the evidence that is introduced at trial and apply the law as defined by the trial judge in the jury instructions.

Otherwise, who’s to say what jurors actually consider in reaching their decision?

This issue recently came to light in a Georgia wrongful death case filed by parents for the wrongful death of a child. The jury ultimately decided in favor of the defendant.

The parents sought a new trial on the basis that some jurors during jury deliberations used their cell phones to look up definitions of various legal terms.

However, the Georgia Appeals Court upheld the denial of the parents’ request because the parents did not establish that the jurors’ use of cell phones during deliberations altered the outcome of the case.

The court said that the parents failed to establish:

  • the actual results of the jurors’ online searches;
  • if the searches prejudiced the jurors’ view of the case in any way;
  • if the definitions found online differed in any way from the written jury instructions; and
  • whether the jurors relied on the online definitions in reaching their verdict.

Mere reference by jurors to outside information alone is not enough to overturn a verdict, the court observed. Instead, a losing party has to establish the reasonable possibility that the outside influences affected the outcome of the case.

The court indicated that certain factors come into play when determining if a party to a lawsuit was prejudiced by juror access to dictionary definitions. For instance, how important is the term in question to the ultimate legal and factual issues in a case? Did the extraneous definition differ from the jury instructions? How much, if at all, did the jury rely on the outside information?

The larger point is that juror use of cell phones during deliberations to look up extraneous information can be a reason to overturn a verdict.

The case is Armstrong v. Gynecology & Obstetrics of DeKalb, P.C. (Case No. A14A0648)