Lafayette Case Provides Important Lesson on Peremptory Challenges and Proving Racially Based Jury Exclusion

In a recent Court of Appeals decision, plaintiff Ryan George appealed a jury verdict that rejected his damage claim following his 2007 car accident in Lafayette. The Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s decision and found that defendants did not improperly challenge jurors during the selection process while one of Mr. George’s challenges was deemed to be discriminatory.

Trials can be made or broken if the jury is sympathetic to one side or the other. This case shows how important it is for plaintiffs to have an experienced attorney involved in jury selection process. A good attorney will not only make the right decision about who should be struck from a jury via peremptory challenges, but will also be prepared to object to the other sides’ challenges if they are a pretext for discrimination while being able to provide a articulable non-race reason for excluding should one of their own challenges are questioned.

The accident occurred at the intersection of Simcoe Street and Evangeline Thurway in Lafaeyette when a vehicle driven by Horace McBride rear ended a vehicle driven by Richard Benoit, Jr. as Benoit was turning left. McBride was working for Helix Energy Solutions Group, Inc. and driving his employer’s vehicle. George was a passenger in Benoit’s vehicle and was injured, requiring extensive treatment.

Mr. George settled claims against Benoit. Then he sued McBride, his employer, and the employer’s insurer. At trial, the jury found that the Benoit’s negligence caused the accident and dismissed the claims against the remaining defendants. On appeal, George asserted that the trial court erred in allowing defendants to exercise a peremptory challenge on three African American jurors without a race neutral explanation, in granting a challenge to George’s peremptory challenge of a white male juror after articulating a race neutral explanation, not ordering a new trial due to an inconsistent jury verdict, and in not granting a new trial due to inconsistencies in the first and second jury verdicts.

With regard to the first two assignments of error, George objected to several of the defendants’ peremptory challenges and argued they were excluding blacks from the jury and his objections were denied. He also made peremptory challenges to white jurors and the plaintiffs successfully objected in one instance. In the end the jury included six white and six black people.

The Equal Protection clause of the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race in the exercise of peremptory challenges during jury selection. The U.S. Supreme Court has set up a three step process for determining if peremptory challenges are constitutional:

First, has the party opposing the peremptory challenge must make a prima facie showing that the striking party was exercising the challenge base don race.
Second, once the showing is made, the striking party must provide a race neutral explanation for the strike. The reason need not be persuasive, or even plausible, just not discriminatory.
Third, considering all relevant circumstances, the opposing party must prove that there was discriminatory intent in the use of the peremptory challenge.

The trial court was satisfied with plaintiff’s “racially neutral” explanation of why they chose to challenge four African American jurors. The reason given to exclude the first juror, Mr. Doucet, was that he’s had neck surgery and was in pain for quite awhile after, and therefore would be sympathetic to plaintiffs. As for the second juror, Martinez Cole, defendants stated that he was inattentive in responding to his questionnaire and therefore would be a passive juror not be involved in negotiations with other jurors. According to defendants, the third juror, Maxine Thibodeaux, had a husband who had been disabled for many years and disabled members of her family, and as such would be sympathetic to plaintiffs. According to the Court of Appeals the trial courts finding that these reasons were not a pretext to discrimination was not clearly erroneous and should not be overturned as they were consistent with the facts provided during jury questioning.

With respect to George’s use of peremptory challenges he used five of his first six challenges to strike white males form the jury. The trial court did not accept his explanation for the sixth peremptory challenge of Michael Fontenot. Mr. George’s purported reason to exclude Fontenot from the jury involved a belief that Mr. Fontenot had very strong feelings about things such as CDL drivers and owner-operators, which would cause him to unfairly favor the defendants and influence the jury. Mr. Fontenot indicated in questioning that his brother in law has a CDL license and he took defensive driving courses while in the military. Because George did not challenge other jurors with a CDL or who had taken defensive driving classes, and also due to inaccuracies in his explanation itself, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and found there was discriminatory intent in his attempt to exclude Mr. Fontenot.
The Court of Appeals similarly found that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury on the inconsistency in the jury’s verdict or in denying George’s motion for a new trial. As such the dismissal of the claims stands.

This case is a great demonstration of how selecting a proper attorney for the case is paramount. Be sure, should you find yourself needing legal advice, that you properly analyze and inspect the track record and success of your attorney. In doing so you can prevent any sort of procedural item that is overlooked by a less qualified lawyer.