How Social Media Can Negatively Affect a Jury Ruling

Active jurors in highly publicized cases are told not to discuss court matters with others or watch, listen, or read any news or social media coverage regarding the trial because these can negatively affect the jury ruling.

Simpler times

Photo by: Justin Grimes

In previous years, avoiding media coverage of a high profile case was easier. Turning off the radio or television during the news hours and refraining from reading the main page of a newspaper was usually enough to help jurors keep their opinions based solely on court approved testimony and evidence. Jurors were not accustomed to having a constant stream of information at the fingertips any time of day.

Bombardment of the media

Nowadays, news sources are available 24/7 on television while also having a large presence on social media. These immediate sources of news are available instantly to anyone with a smart phone or access to a computer. These sources may be read by millions, yet may contain speculative information written to gain attention or ruffle feathers, not to spread truth and justice.

Opinion rant

Photo by: Bernard Spragg. NZ

Beyond what is posted by news sources is the ever-growing oversharing of public opinions. These rants are usually shared on private social media accounts and are viewable to anyone on the news feed of all their followers, whether the opinion is sought after or not. Avoiding these blatant posts would require a person to avoid checking their social media, which may be impossible for some to do.

Twitter in the courtroom

Many jurors continue to use social media during a trial while others have gone as far as to post live tweets during the court proceedings. This can result in a mistrial and loss of time and money for those working on the case.

• In the July 2014 case of a foster father accused of murder and child abuse, a juror was found to have tweeted opinions about the case and his disdain of jury duty starting before he was even selected to serve on the jury.

• A New York juror during a 2015 robbery trial was fine $1,000 after her constant postings on social media caused the case to go to mistrial.

• In June 2017, the jury foreman for an attempted murder case in Pennsylvania caused it to be declared a mistrial after the jury foreman continually posted updates on Facebook which were then flooded with heated comments of debate.

Isolated or fined

Photo by: Kumar’s Edit

In an attempt to keep juror’s away from social media and their views during a trial private and untarnished, some cases require juror’s to be sequestered from the world for a time. This can include housing them away from home and family while confiscating cell phones and laptops. Those that find their way around these barricades may end up removed from jury duty while some also face hefty fines or even jail time. Those that follow the rules but are tired of being isolated may not take the necessary time needed to properly deliberate a case. The jury members’ growing feelings of homesickness and isolation could cause them to do whatever possible to ensure they home sooner.

Social media’s negative effect on trials

Social media has been shown to have an increasingly negative effect on jury trials, whether through jurors misuse of social media or through their desire to return to it. According to Utah Courts, “American citizens have the right to a fair trial and jurors ensure this right is upheld. “ Defendants that feel their case may have been unfairly judged due to outside influences on jurors or through sequestering causing jurors to come to a verdict prematurely should consult with their attorney regarding how to proceed.

Utah Wrongful Death Statutes Allow Woman to Sue Self

woman sues self for wrongful deathIt may sound like the plot to the newest movie to be considered for an award for “Best Comedy,” but the Utah case of Bagley v. Bagley, wherein Barbara Bagley is suing herself is very real. The case was dismissed in January of 2014 in district court, but it was taken to the Utah Court of Appeals, which found on Feb. 12 that the survival action and wrongful death statutes do not bar Bagley from suing herself regarding the accident that killed her husband.

Bagley Accuses Self of Wrongful Death

According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, on Dec. 27, 2011, Bagley and her husband were driving their Range Rover in the desert 17 miles east of Battle Mountain, Nevada. Mrs. Bagley was behind the wheel of the vehicle when she hit a large sagebrush. It is unclear if Bagley attempted to avoid the sagebrush, but whatever the reason, the Range Rover flipped upside down and ejected her husband. The 55-year-old suffered severe injuries and died a little over a week later—Jan. 6, 2012—at the Battle Mountain General Hospital.

As the heir and personal representative of the estate of her late husband, Bagley is suing herself as the driver of the vehicle for the wrongful death of her husband. Bagley’s original suit claimed that she was negligent for failure to maintain a proper lookout for potential obstacles in the road as well as failure to keep her vehicle in proper control.

The interests of the driver Bagley are being representing by her insurance carrier. The estate Bagley is suing driver Bagley for an unspecified amount of money for damages, including medical expenses, funeral expenses, loss of past and future financial support, the physical pain her husband suffered before he died, and her mental anguish at the loss of his love and companionship.

Can She Really do That?

In January of 2014, Third District Judge Paul Maughan dismissed the case, stating that “the language of the wrongful death and survival action statutes prevents a tortfeasor from seeking recovery from herself and that the plaintiffs therefore could not bring suit against the defendant.”

However, in a 3-0 ruling, the Utah Court of Appeals stated that those statutes do not in fact bar Bagley from seeking damages against herself. The question came down to semantics, specifically the definition of the phrase “of another” in the two statutes.

The wrongful death statute reads as follows: “When the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another, his heirs, or his personal representatives for the benefit of his heirs, may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death.”

The survival statute reads: “A cause of action arising out of personal injury to a person, or death caused by the wrongful act or negligence of another, does not abate upon the death of the wrongdoer or the injured person.”

According to attorneys for the driver Bagley, the heirs or personal representatives cannot sue themselves if they were the cause of the death or personal injury. However, the appeals court found that “of another” simply meant someone other than the deceased or injured party.

Attorneys for the estate Bagley claim that as a responsible heir and personal representative for the estate, she really had no other choice than to initiate the lawsuit against herself, saying that she is legally obligated to pay off creditors before she could get any money from the estate.

On the other side of the issue, attorneys for driver Bagley say this would cause confusion to a potential jury. “The jury would be asked to determine how much money will fairly compensate Barbara Bagley for the harm she caused herself,” the attorneys stated in a motion to dismiss the suit. “The jury will be highly confused—it cannot order a person to compensate herself.”

However, it wasn’t the job of the Utah Court of Appeals to decide the final outcome of the litigation, just whether it should be allowed to proceed according to the wrongful death and survival action statutes. Their decision was to “reverse the dismissal of plaintiffs’ causes of action and remand for further proceedings.”

Even though that was their finding, they mentioned other legal issues which may ultimately affect the outcome of Bagley v. Bagley and other potentially similar future cases involving the wrongful death statutes. The first was in regards to heir Bagley also being appointed the personal representative for the estate. A Utah law regarding estates does not allow for spouses “alleged to have contributed to the death of the decedent” to be appointed personal representatives. However, that issue was not before the court. Nor was Utah’s comparative fault statute brought up in either the district of appeals court. This statute limits the ability of the plaintiff to recover when they bear some fault for the death or injury.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 17, attorneys for driver Bagley hadn’t made a decision as to whether they were going to appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.

Iron County Prosecutors Drop Ag-gag Charges, Law Examined

Utah ag-gag charges dropped

Photo: Matthias M/Wikimedia Commons

Four animal activists who were allegedly on private property at a hog farm in Iron County in September have been released from charges of Utah’s agricultural interference law, also known as an ag-gag law. The activists will still face criminal trespass charges, and many are wondering when it comes to ag-gag laws, why trespassing charges aren’t sufficient and exactly who these other laws are protecting. In the case of many animal rights activists, they believe it’s not necessarily who is being protected but a certain type of misbehavior that is being protected.

Ag-gag in Iron County

The four activists from California and Maryland were members of a group known as the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and the hog farm was Circle Four Farms, a part of Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of the world’s largest pork producer. According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, the attorney for the activists, T. Matthew Phillips, stated that the four wanted to document the pigs’ journey from the farm to a California slaughterhouse.

According to the FARM website, they are a nonprofit group that is “working to end the use of animals as food through public education and grassroots activism.” While they claim that most of their programs are aimed at engaging “likely target audiences … and [nudging] them along the vegan path,” they also state that “[o]ccasionally, we seek to capture media attention through dramatic displays.”

Attorney Phillips says the Circle Four Farms incident was not one of these examples of “dramatic display.” In fact, he states that the four were actually on a public roadway and were only capturing images of farm buildings, not of the workers or animals.

However, the wording of Utah’s ag-gag law 76-6-112 states that a person is guilty of agricultural interference if they knowingly or intentionally record “an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation” without the consent of the owner. The law specifies several acts that are prohibited, including leaving a recording a device on the premises, obtaining a job under false pretenses to record activity, recording activity as a regular employee of the facility, or trespassing on private property to get such images or sounds.

Given the fact that Iron County prosecutors are still charging the four activists with criminal trespass, they must differ with Phillips, however, Circle Four Farms stated that they didn’t wish to pursue the agricultural interference charges.

Ag-gag Under the Microscope and Put on Trial

Utah Rep. John G. Mathis (R-Vernal) sponsored HB 187 in 2012. The bill went through two revisions before being ultimately approved. According to an article in Deseret News, Mathis claimed the reason for sponsoring this bill was that he wanted to put an end to “animal-rights terrorists” out to destroy the agricultural industry. He was quoted as saying that animal protection groups such as FARM and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were using these investigations as propaganda to promote their own organizations, especially in fundraising efforts.

Opposition to the ag-gag laws—which are currently on the books in five other states—say these laws are violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They state that the First Amendment protecting free speech and press has specifically led to reform in the food industry in the past, citing such books as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which was pivotal in leading the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

If convicted of criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor per Utah Criminal Code 76-6-206, the four activists could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Of the six states with ag-gag laws, only one other person has been charged with violation of the law. In February of 2013, Amy Meyer was charged for videotaping the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper. However, charges against her were also dropped, with the reasoning cited as either public outcry or the fact that Meyer’s video footage showed that she was on public property at the time of her filming.

On a larger scale, in July of 2013, two national nonprofit organizations, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and PETA, filed a lawsuit against the State of Utah challenging the ag-gag law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Attorneys for the state attempted to argue that the case should be thrown out, however, according to an August 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby has refused.

Even though he didn’t dismiss the case, Shelby has said that at this point, the plaintiffs have failed to show how the statute has resulted in past injury as no one is currently being prosecuted under the statute or how it will cause future injury, but the case will still have its proverbial day in court which means it will have to stand up to further public scrutiny.