June 19, 2019

Colorado Supreme Court: Erroneous Denial of Challenge for Cause Does Not Require Automatic Reversal

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Newman, LLC v. Roberts on Monday, February 8, 2016.

Civil Law—Jury—Overruling Challenges to Jurors—Harmless Error— CRCP 61—Stare Decisis.

The Supreme Court held that allowing a civil litigant fewer peremptory challenges than authorized, or than available to and exercised by the opposing party, does not by itself require automatic reversal. Instead, the reviewing court must determine whether the error substantially influenced the outcome of the case in accordance with C.R.C.P. 61. This conclusion follows from People v. Novotny, 2014 CO 18, in which the Court determined that the automatic reversal rule in the criminal context rested on the assumption that impairment of the ability to shape the jury through peremptory challenges affected a “substantial right” and thus warranted automatic reversal. This same assumption undergirds the Court’s parallel rule in the civil context, but, as it held in Novotny, subsequent developments in the law concerning harmless error analysis and the significance of the right to shape the jury have invalidated that assumption. As such, the Court rejected the automatic reversal rule in the civil context and overruled prior decisions to the contrary. See Blades v. DaFoe, 704 P.2d 317 (Colo. 1985); Safeway Stores, Inc. v. Langdon, 532 P.2d 337 (Colo. 1975); and Denver City Tramway Co. v. Kennedy, 117 P. 167 (Colo. 1911).

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Automatic Reversal Still Required in Civil Case Despite Supreme Court’s Ruling in Novotny

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Morales-Guevara v. Koren on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

Motor Vehicle Accident Damages Calculation—Jury Selection—Automatic Reversal Rule.

At trial, defendant did not dispute that she caused a motor vehicle accident by driving while intoxicated. Damages were in dispute. Defendant challenged plaintiff’s claim that the accident was the cause of a heart attack he suffered two months later.

During voir dire, there was an exchange between plaintiff’s counsel and a prospective juror concerning whether she could properly apply the burden of proof to the issue of the causation of the heart attack. After receiving a negative response, plaintiff challenged her for cause. Neither defendant nor the court tried to rehabilitate the prospective juror. The court denied the challenge, plaintiff removed the juror using a peremptory challenge, and plaintiff then exhausted his remaining peremptory challenges.

On appeal, plaintiff raised two issues: (1) whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying plaintiff’s challenge for cause to the prospective juror and, if so, (2) whether the “automatic reversal rule” announced in the civil case of Denver City Tramway Co. v. Kennedy,50 Colo. 418, 117 P. 167 (1911), remains binding after the Supreme Court’s decision in the criminal case of People v. Novotny, 2014 CO 18, 320 P.3d 1194.

The automatic reversal rule provides that, when a trial court improvidently denies a challenge for cause to a prospective juror and then, after exercising a peremptory challenge to that juror, a litigant exhausts his or her peremptory challenges, reversal is required without a showing of prejudice. The resolution of this issue turns on whether the Supreme Court overruled Denver City Tramway and its progeny in Novotny.The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the challenge for cause and the automatic reversal rule still applies in civil cases, thereby requiring reversal.

Here, the record disclosed that the prospective juror clearly stated she would be unable to follow the law. She made no affirmative assurance that she would follow the court’s instructions after expressing her unwillingness to do so. She should have been excused from the jury and it was an abuse of discretion not to do so.

The Court also discussed the case law behind the automatic reversal rule and the recent Novotny decision. It concluded that Novotny did not overrule Denver Tramway and its progeny, and that the application of the automatic reversal rule still controls in the civil context. The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary and full case available here.