published Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Hamilton County: Jurors’ affidavits stir legal debate


by Monica Mercer

A jury at the end of a trial typically is given a hearty “thank you” and sent on their way.

But that’s not the case in several strongly-worded — and contradictory — affidavits recently filed by Chattanooga jurors, detailing how they arrived at a $6.12 million award for a brain-damaged woman.

The verdict against Dr. Michael Goodman, a gastroenterologist with a private practice at the Medical Mall in Erlanger hospital, is considered by many in the legal community to be one of the largest medical malpractice awards ever issued in Hamilton County Circuit Court.

The doctor was sued by Kristen Freeman, 33, who suffered cardiac arrest and permanent, debilitating brain damage from complications of a colonoscopy and endoscopy performed by Dr. Goodman in 2006.

Now the case’s appeals process is getting attention from local attorneys because of the affidavits, which have burst open a usually shielded deliberation process.

“I’ll say (these affidavits) are not just rare. It is extremely rare for this to happen,” said veteran plaintiff’s attorney Sam Jones, who has practiced law in Chattanooga for 30 years.

“Jury deliberations are almost sacrosanct,” he said, noting that most cases on appeal never have anything to do with what happened in the jury room.

Jeffrey Boehm, another longtime Chattanooga plaintiff’s attorney, likened the affidavits to an attempt to “reconstruct history.”

“Trying to reconstruct a juror’s decision is bad policy and it can only lead to mischief. It ought to be discouraged,” Mr. Boehm said.

By law, jurors simply aren’t required to explain themselves.

But Hamilton County Courts do not bar jurors from talking about their deliberations either, including to the attorneys who try the cases. Only the local U.S. District Court has an explicit rule barring contact between jurors and attorneys.

Defense attorney Ron Wells said the affidavits are rare, but predictable. The enormity of the verdict, which has the potential to significantly affect Dr. Goodman’s practice, is what has spurred the defense’s aggressive approach, he said.

“The case has had such an impact on both sides,” Mr. Wells said. “I think that’s why everyone is going to such lengths to make sure everything is factually and legally correct,” even if the affidavits ultimately have no effect in a state appellate court.

Dr. Goodman’s attorney, David Harrison, exercised his right to seek feedback after the trial, which led to the affidavits that the defense says are proof that the court erred in its instructions to jurors.

In the affidavits, four jurors say they felt “coerced” by the court to change their minds and find fault with Dr. Goodman in the interest only of saving the time and expense of having to retry the case.

“I stated to some, if not all, of the jurors, that I felt like I had just sold my soul to the devil,” one juror said in a sworn affidavit.

She stated she never wanted to find Dr. Goodman responsible for the condition of Ms. Freeman.

The affidavits indicate that juror opinion initially was split down the middle in the contentious case, and the juror said she would have been fine with a different jury deciding the case when faced with the prospect of deadlock.

Ms. Freeman’s attorneys have filed similar affidavits in response to the defense’s, with at least one juror who was in favor of Ms. Freeman stating that no one felt pressure to decide one way or another.

That contradiction is exactly the problem with seeking juror input after the fact, Mr. Jones said, and also why appellate courts tend to ignore juror deliberations except where there is proof of outside influence.

“You can talk to the 12 jurors and they’re all going to give you a different story. Not one of those jurors would be intentionally lying,” Mr. Jones said.

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