A New Jersey state appellate panel determined that a trial court judge improperly failed to ask open-ended questions during jury selection in a suit by a deceased patient’s wife against a nursing home, throwing out a verdict in favor of the nursing home and reopening the case. The case is Estate of Joseph Gamma et al. v. Cedar Hill Health Care Center et al., case number A-3544-13T4 in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

The court did agree with Gamma that the trial court judge should have asked at least three open-ended questions during jury selection, as required by New Jersey law.
“The questions [posed to the jury] did not elicit verbalized open-ended responses from each juror, and we cannot confidently conclude that the jury empanelled was both fair and impartial,” the per curiam decision said.

Gamma sued Cedar Hill and several of its staff following the death of her husband, Joseph Gamma, in April 2009. Gamma alleged that Cedar Hill failed to provide rails on its bed, which allowed her husband to fall out of bed, causing injuries that later led to his death.

Gamma sued for negligence and violations of the New Jersey Nursing Home Responsibilities and Residents’ Rights Act. The judge directed a verdict on the question of the Residents’ Rights Act, and the jury found in favor of Cedar Hill concerning negligence.

On appeal, the panel ruled that the trial court had not abused its discretion by directing a verdict, but agreed that the court had erred during jury selection. The panel noted that the trial judge had asked jurors standard biographical and omnibus questions but failed to also ask open-ended questions required by Administrative Directive #4-07.  The judge also rejected a request from the attorneys to ask open-ended questions, according to the decision.

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