The Missouri courts seem to provide more than their share of material worthy of comment. In Ross-Paige v. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, decided on June 30, a jury had found for the plaintiff, a St. Louis police officer, on her claim of retaliation under the Missouri Human Rights Act. After the jury awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages and found the defendant liable for punitive damages, a second phase was held to set the amount of punitive damages.
The jury set punitive damages at a staggering and manifestly excessive $7.2 million, which was reduced under Missouri’s statutory cap of five times compensatory damages to about $2.5 million after attorneys’ fees were added to the compensatory damages. (As noted in a prior post, the Missouri Supreme Court has declared the cap statute unconstitutional as applied to common-law actions, but has upheld it as applied to statutory causes of action such as that in the instant case.)
During their deliberations, the jurors apparently wondered what would happen to the punitive damages, which led one of the jurors to Google the question, in violation of strict instructions by the court prohibiting jurors from conducting their own research. As the juror explained at a post-trial hearing:
It was one of many questions that we [jurors] were asking each other. . . . And I guess I felt inadequately informed to render that kind of an opinion.
By statute, 50% of the punitive damages in Missouri go to a tort victim’s compensation fund administered by the State. There are at least two reasons why it is highly prejudicial to the defendant for jurors to learn that a portion of any punitive damages they award will go to the government. First, many jurors may be reluctant to give the plaintiff a large windfall, a consideration that has reduced force if the plaintiff will receive only a reduced share. Second, jurors may feel that the money that goes to the government is a form of personal benefit to them or support for worthy public endeavors and be more generous in dipping into the defendant’s pocket. (This consideration would be diminished in this case by the fact that the defendant Board of Police Commissioners was itself a public agency.)
From what the opinion recounts, the information the juror obtained—and read at least in part to the other jurors—was a relatively innocuous passage from Wikipedia:
[P]unitive damages or exemplary damages are damages intended to reform or deter the defendant and others from engaging in conduct similar to that which form the basis of the lawsuit. Although the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff, the plaintiff will receive some or — all or some portion of the punitive damage award.
[P]unitive damages are often awarded where compensatory damages are deemed an inadequate remedy.
Nothing in this passage disclosed what would happen to the award the jury was to make. The court stated in a footnote that the juror had provided the trial court with printouts of his Google search results, and there is no indication that the defendant argued that anything extrinsic was learned by the jury that could have affected its deliberations.
The general rule is that a presumption of prejudice attaches to jurors’ acquisition of extrinsic evidence. It would have been unremarkable had the court rested a rejection of the defendant’s contention on the basis that the presumption was overcome in this case because the effort to ascertain the ultimate disposition of any payment of punitive damages was demonstrably futile. Instead, it ruled that no presumption of prejudice attached at all because the presumption is limited to improper inquiries into evidentiary or factual matters that the jury must decide and not legal questions.
The court nowhere acknowledged how prejudicial “legal” research by jurors could be, either specifically in this situation or more generally. The prejudice is manifest when the legal research reveals information that distorts or contradicts the court’s instructions to the jury; but it can be present even when the law that a juror’s improper research discloses is entirely accurate, as would have been the case here had the jury learned that the State would receive half of the punitive damages recovery.