When a Washington, D.C. personal injury case goes to trial, a number of procedural issues can arise that may delay or confuse the proceedings. In one case before a state appellate court, the court had to consider whether a party’s strike of an African-American juror was valid.
A plaintiff brought an uninsured/underinsured motorist claim against an insurance company, and the case went to trial. Before the trial began, the insurance company used a peremptory challenge to strike an African-American female as a juror. The plaintiff’s lawyer objected to the challenge on racial grounds, noting that the potential juror was a member of a distinct racial group, and asked for the reason for striking the juror.
The insurance company’s lawyer stated that he was striking her because she was inattentive and did not seem to be engaged in the jury selection process, so he was concerned she would not pay attention and focus on the evidence at trial. The court then concluded that the basis for the strike was “legally insufficient.” The trial court noted that the juror was “not particularly engaged” and did not find the lawyer’s explanation for the strike to be “disingenuous,” but nevertheless found that the potential juror’s apparent “introverted personality” was not a sufficient race-neutral reason for a peremptory challenge. The trial went forward, and the jury found in favor of the plaintiff.
On appeal, the insurance company argued that its strike of the juror should have been allowed, and the appeals court agreed. The appeals court explained that a peremptory challenge is presumed to be made in a nondiscriminatory manner, and the opposing party has to prove purposeful racial discrimination.
The court explained that a juror’s inattentiveness can be a racially neutral reason for a peremptory strike. In addition, although the plaintiff’s lawyer stated that the juror did not seem to be engaged, the issue then becomes whether the behavior was supported by the court’s observations. In this case, the trial court agreed that the juror was not particularly engaged and found that the reason for the lawyer’s strike was genuine. Therefore, the appeals court reversed the jury’s decision and remanded for a new trial.
A peremptory challenge is a means by which a party can remove an unfavorable potential juror from the jury. There is a limit on how many peremptory challenges a party can make. Generally, peremptory challenges can be used for any reason, except that a party cannot use a peremptory challenge to discriminate against members of a distinctive group. Different jurisdictions have different rules about the use of peremptory challenges in order to avoid the use of discriminatory challenges. Under federal law, there is a three-step process for determining whether a party’s use of a peremptory challenge is valid.
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