On June 9, 2016, the Supreme Court decided Dietz v. Bouldin. Petitioner Rocky Dietz sued respondent Hillary Bouldin for negligence for injuries suffered in an automobile accident. Bouldin removed the case to Federal District Court. At trial, Bouldin admitted liability and stipulated to damages of $10,136 for Dietz’ medical expenses. The only disputed issue remaining was whether Dietz was entitled to more. During deliberations, the jury sent the judge a note asking whether Dietz’s medical expenses had been paid and, if so, by whom. Although the judge was concerned that the jury may not have understood that a verdict of less than the stipulated amount would require a mistrial, the judge, with the parties’ consent, responded only that the information being sought was not relevant to the verdict. The jury returned a verdict in Dietz’ favor but awarded him $0 in damages. After the verdict, the judge discharged the jury, and the jurors left the courtroom. Moments later, the judge realized the error in the $0 verdict and ordered the clerk to bring back the jurors, who were all in the building—including one who may have left for a short time and returned. Over the objection of Dietz’s counsel and in the interest of judicial economy and efficiency, the judge decided to recall the jury. After questioning the jurors as a group, the judge was satisfied that none had spoken about the case to anyone and ordered them to return the next morning. After receiving clarifying instructions, the reassembled jury returned a verdict awarding Dietz $15,000 in damages. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether a federal district court can recall a jury it has discharged, or whether the court can remedy the error only by ordering a new trial. By a vote of 6-2, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit. Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that a federal district court has a limited inherent power to rescind a jury discharge order and recall a jury in a civil case for further deliberations after identifying an error in the jury's verdict. The district court did not abuse that power here. Justice Sotomayor’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kennedy joined.
To discuss the case, we have Brad Shannon, who is Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law.