Sanctions for Tainting Jury Pool
The Constitution guarantees the right to an impartial jury. This right is critical to ensuring a fair trial. While not specifically outlined in the Rules of Professional Conduct, it should go without saying that an attorney may not interfere with a party’s right to a fair trial. Nonetheless, PL Matters would have considerably less to discuss if professionals always followed the rules. Take for example the following case out of Texas where an attorney learned the hard way not to tamper with the jury process.
The case stems from an underlying product liability and wrongful death suit. A family sued a steel pipe manufacturer, alleging its defective design led to a gas explosion, which killed their son. The case was scheduled to proceed to trial. However, prior to the start of trial, residents in the forum county allegedly received phone calls from pollsters who attempted to shift the blame from defendant steel manufacturer to “shoddy workmanship” or the “failure of city inspectors”.
While the case ultimately resolved prior to trial, a motion for sanctions was filed against defendant’s counsel. The evidence revealed that the pollster had contacted parties and witnesses, even those represented by counsel, involved in the litigation, as well as the family of the Judge and the Judge’s staff. The poll also allegedly targeted city employees and officials associated with the lawsuit.
What was more incriminating was that defense counsel himself admitted to instructing and guiding the pollster on the purpose and composition of the poll and reviewing and approving the poll questions. The court determined that the questions were designed to influence or change the opinions of the person being polled and therefore were not an appropriate pre-trial preparation tool. Furthermore, the polling efforts were not coincidental or random.
The court concluded that defense counsel’s conduct was “an abusive litigation practice that harms the integrity of the justice system and the jury trial process.” The court sanctioned defense counsel over $100,000 in attorney fees. The court’s opinion of the attorney’s conduct serves as a good reminder that attorneys have a duty to uphold the integrity of the judicial system and the jury trial process. Defense counsel’s conduct compromised the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. Here defendant’s counsel argued that he did not violate any rules of Professional Conduct. While that may be true, the court’s decision is evidence that sometimes an attorney’s ethical obligations extend beyond the black and white letter of the law.