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Last week I penned a column where I was extremely critical of a decision by a jury up in tiny Humboldt County to hammer Skilled Healthcare, which owns and operates nursing homes, with the largest monetary verdict in America this year – the better part of a billion dollars. 

I’m back writing about this case again because, based on information that has been shared with me, it looks like Skilled Healthcare, and the integrity of our judicial system, may have been the victims of jury tampering and a dishonest juror.  If the judge in the case agrees, it will lead to him setting aside this stunningly large and egregious verdict, and requiring an entirely new trial.

Let me first ‘set the table’ a bit…  The reason why this particular court case involving Skilled Healthcare, which is a large nursing home owner and administrator here in California, caught my eye in the first place was that the company was hit with a staggering $671 jury verdict – what I call an ‘extinction event’ for Skilled since they have nowhere close to the assets or cash-flow to pay such a sum (if they borrowed to the hilt they couldn’t even get to $100m).  This, the largest jury verdict in America this year, came in a case where no personal injuries or other resident-specific harm was alleged.  Rather the suit was about by inadequate staffing at defendants’ facilities. This is a case where the jury found that patients simply were not getting 100% of the required time with professional nurses. Not good – but especially since Skilled was providing nearly all of the required nursing time, a judgment totally out of whack with reality.

The bigger-picture policy questions raised in my column of last week?  Whether or not this judgment would ultimately lead to a private sector exodus from the nursing home industry (will banks or other lenders even offer credit to such firms, knowing that they are all one judgment away from melt-down?) and a general observation about how this case is just another textbook example of how badly tort reform is needed here in California.

So what is this latest development in the case – which caused me to write on it again?  To put it bluntly, it appears that one of the jurors in the case lied to the court in order to get onto the jury.  That’s what I was told by an attorney representing Skilled Healthcare who reached out to me on Friday…  

As you might guess, before a case like this takes place, all of the perspective jurors are asked questions (sometimes a LOT of questions) in order to make absolutely sure they don’t have any conflicts of interest that would keep them from being impartial.  It turns out that one of the jurors not only had familiarity with one of the nursing home facilities in question, but specifically had a very negative opinion of it. 

It’s more complicated than you or I want to get into (you can read all of the details in filed court documents here), but this one juror apparently used to work in the county coroner’s office and in that capacity had dealings with a friend of hers who had issues with a Skilled nursing home. 

News of this conflict would never have come to light, except that this juror bragged about it after the trial was over, at a reception hosted by the District Attorney’s office.  It was so bad that it was actual two other jurors who heard it and brought it to the attention of Skilled’s attorneys.  Their statements were taken and submitted to the court last Friday in a motion that also included testimony from the former Coroner (now a local city councilmember) who made it clear that he was well aware of the negative bias of this juror towards Skilled Healthcare.

Now the plaintiff’s attorneys will get a chance to respond to these allegations, but I don’t see how they are going to refute the facts that have come to light.  It seems to me very likely that the judge in this case is going to have no choice but to declare a mistrial and strike down this verdict.  Never mind the potential influence that this biased and untruthful juror would have had on the rest of the jury (every see 12 Angry Men?), in this kind of case it actually takes the affirmative votes of nine jurors to find wrongdoing – which is precisely the number who did so in this case.  In other words, if you disqualified the vote of just this one juror, it would mean the verdict would not have been reached.

I presume that the case will be re-tried, of course.  If Skilled Healthcare was not providing required minimum levels of care for those in their nursing homes, they should be held accountable (they maintain that they did provide adequate care).  But if our justice system is going to work property, should another trial conclude wrong-doing on the party of this nursing home owner and operator, the jury must assign a financial verdict that is actually rational.

And as for the juror appears to have lied her way onto this jury – it seems to me that a new criminal investigation should be opened into her conduct.  No one is above the law.