Cochran v. Street

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Cochran v. Street, Wythe 133 (1791),[1] discussed whether the High Court of Chancery could order a new trial when several of the jurors in the lower court trial said they were tricked into agreeing with the majority of the jury.

Background

John Street sued David Cochran in Hanover County Court for defamation and won damages of £150. Cochran filed a motion in law to stop the court's judgment, which the court denied. Cochran then filed a bill in equity with the county court's chancery side asking the it to stay execution of the judgment until further order, claiming that the trial began sooner than he expected, thus preventing him from proving the truth of his allegedly-defamatory speech. Cochran also claimed that some of the jurors intended to give Street little to no damages, but those jurors were convinced by the rest of the jury that they were required to officially ratify the majority verdict, even if they personally did not agree with it. The county court granted Cochran's bill in equity.

The county court heard several witnesses on the truth of Cochran's statements - some saying they were true, some saying they were false. No evidence was shown that the timing of the first trial was irregular. Four of the jurors from the first trial testified that they did not think Street should have been given any damages. These four jurors said they were unfamiliar with the law of juries, so they were convinced by the other jurors that they had to accede to the majority, which is the only reason they agreed to the verdict in court. When the verdict was returned in the first trial and the judge asked the jury "have you agreed in a verdict?", none of these four jurors said that they differed.

Four other jurors testified that there was a wide variety of opinions among the jury. The range of damages individual jurors thought appropriate for Street ranged from nothing to £500. These jurors testified that they did not believe any jurors were misled on the topic of agreement.

The county court decreed another trial on the issue of defamation. Street appealed the county court's decree to the High Court of Chancery.

The Court's Decision

On October 28, 1791, the High Court of Chancery reversed the county court's decree requiring another trial.

Wythe said that Cochran should not have filed a bill in equity asking the court to stay the judgment unless there was some reason he could not make a motion for a new trial. There was no evidence proving that the original trial was timed unfairly to surprise Cochran. The truth of Cochran's words was a legitimate subject of inquiry, but Cochran should have filed a motion with the court in law for a new trial instead of a bill in equity. Finally, Wythe found it almost inevitable that some jurors must join a verdict they do not agree with; in a way, Wythe thought that such verdicts might actually be the most just, as the jury will have engaged in thorough discussion first.

Cochran appealed the Chancery Court's decision, and on May 16, 1792, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed it.[2] The Supreme Court said that it was clear that the verdict was awarded based on a mistake, and that there did not appear to be any evidence that the jurors were tampered with to change their testimony. In such a situation, a court of equity can set aside the verdict and award a new trial.

Wythe's Discussion

Wythe seemed to give the Supreme Court's decision backhanded approval, "acknowledg(ing it) to be right" so long as one accepts that four jurors, all of whom were at least 26 years old, held an ironclad belief that the jury's verdict was improper and were only swayed by their fellow jurors' misdirection on the law of juries. Wythe also wrote that allowing part of a jury to retract an entered verdict might set a dangerous precedent, referring to a footnote in Ross v. Pleasants.[3]

References

  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852): 133.
  2. Cochran v. Street, 1 Va. (1 Wash.) 79 (1792).
  3. Wythe 10 (1788-89).