Mississippi High Court Finds ‘Taint of Unfairness’ in $10.5 Million Verdict, Orders New Trial
On March 11, 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed a jury verdict of $10.5 million and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial. The Court found an “overwhelming appearance” of jury interference. The case arose out of a deadly head-on collision involving a Hyundai Excel. Some passengers improperly wore seatbelts, while other passengers failed to use seatbelts at all.
The estate of the deceased passengers filed a wrongful death suit against Hyundai in Coahoma County Circuit Court. After the first trial verdict was overturned, the plaintiffs won a second trial and were awarded damages of $10.5 million. However, defense counsel began to question the validity of the verdict when multiple witnesses told defense counsel about potential outside influences and interference with the jury. Witnesses alleged that Carey Sparks, a preacher, had a working relationship with plaintiff’s counsel, Dennis Sweet, and that Sparks assisted Sweet in securing a favorable jury verdict.
Sparks and Sweet initially denied knowing each other or working together in an April 2015 hearing before the trial court. Multiple witnesses testified that Sparks bragged about securing a large verdict in Clarksdale and that he had a friend on the jury. Sparks also told witnesses he preached to local congregations in the weeks leading up to a jury trial so jurors would recognize him in the court room and have a positive association with him. After the hearing, the trial court found that the allegations of outside influence on the jury were “speculative at best.” Defendants appealed.
The case went to the state Supreme Court who reversed the trial court decision and remanded the case for further discovery and investigation into the jury interference allegations. On remand, it was revealed that Sparks and Sweet falsely testified in April 2015. The two did know each other and evidence showed pay stubs from Sweet to Sparks in which Sparks was paid for consulting services. Sweet hired Sparks to work on the Applewhite case, and on numerous other cases. Additionally, Sparks’ best friend’s aunt was a juror in the Applewhite case. While the friend and aunt deny discussing the case with each other or Sparks, the conflict is apparent. The trial court found that Sweet had deceived the court and ordered him to self-report to the Mississippi Bar. Yet, the trial court still denied defendant a new trial.
Defendant once again appealed to the Supreme Court, and last week, the Court ruled in their favor. As a result of the deception in 2015, evidence that defendants could have used to prove jury interference was destroyed or lost. The Court concluded “that there was actual impropriety, a taint of unfairness, real and perceived, all of which is fatal to affirming the verdict” in this case. The Court held that a new trial was necessary due to “the [overwhelming] appearance of taint permeating the proceedings”.