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Alaska: Jurors’ Explanation of Negligence Verdict Doesn’t Warrant New Trial

In May 2017, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s denial of a prisoner’s motion for a new trial based on juror comments about the rationale for their verdict.

Alaska prisoner Richard A. Mattox was watching television with several other prisoners at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in 2008 when guard Roxanne Dash momentarily left the unit. Fellow prisoner Vincent Wilkerson then punched Mattox on the left side of his face; Wilkerson was a friend of Mattox’s cellmate, who had previously threatened him.

Mattox suffered “left periorbital fractures,” a “right maxillary sinus fracture and a nasal fracture,” which required surgery. He used an intercom to call the control room for medical attention. The control room guard radioed Dash, who immediately returned to the unit; Mattox told Dash he had been assaulted and eventually identified Wilkerson as his attacker.

Mattox filed a state negligence action against the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) for injuries arising from the assault. He alleged the DOC was negligent for failing to accommodate his prior written requests to be moved to a different unit and for allowing Dash to leave the unit unsupervised.

The suit was initially dismissed, but reinstated in 2014 when the Alaska Supreme Court held jailers have a duty to protect prisoners from reasonably foreseeable harm, and Mattox had presented evidence that raised a genuine issue of fact as to the foreseeability of the attack he suffered. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50].

The case proceeded to trial on remand. Under Alaska law, the state and its agencies are immune from suit when a claim is “based upon the exercise or performance of or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a state agency or an employee of the state, whether or not the discretion involved is abused.” The trial court granted the DOC’s request for a discretionary function jury instruction. Mattox did not object to the instruction, and even said it “seemed appropriate.”

The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the DOC. Following the verdict, the judge invited the parties and counsel to meet informally with the jury. During that meeting, jurors admitted that they applied discretionary function immunity when deciding if the DOC was negligent for leaving the unit unsupervised.

Mattox then moved for a new trial, arguing the jury had erroneously applied discretionary function immunity in reaching its verdict. The court denied his motion and he appealed.

The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed, observing that, “generally, under Alaska Evidence Rule 606(b) a court may not rely upon the jury’s mental processes in reaching a verdict or a juror’s testimony, affidavits, or other statements about what occurred during jury deliberations when determining whether to grant a new trial.”

The Supreme Court also concluded that the language of the jury instruction did not contain an incorrect statement of the law, and Mattox did not object to it. “Mattox impliedly consented to have the jury apply an accurate statement of the law of discretionary function immunity, as articulated by the superior court, to the facts as the jury found them,” the Court wrote. “Given that the superior court did not commit error, the court’s decision to deny Mattox a new trial was not an abuse of discretion.”

See: Mattox v. Alaska, 397 P.3d 250 (Alaska 2017). 

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Related legal case

Mattox v. Alaska