Respondent parents and son sued petitioner in Federal District
Court to recover damages sustained by the son when his feet came in
contact with the blades of a riding lawnmower manufactured by
petitioner. After a trial that extended over a 3-week period, the
District Court entered judgment for petitioner upon a jury verdict
and denied respondents' motion for a new trial. One of the grounds
alleged for a new trial was that the District Court had erred in
denying respondents' motion to approach the jury after the judgment
was entered because one of the jurors had not responded to a
question on voir dire
seeking to elicit information about
previous "injuries . . . that resulted in any disability or
prolonged pain or suffering" to members of the juror's immediate
family when, in fact, the juror's son had sustained a broken leg as
a result of an exploding tire. The Court of Appeals reversed,
holding that the juror's failure to respond affirmatively to the
question on voir dire
had prejudiced respondents' right of
Respondents are not entitled to a new trial
unless the juror's failure to disclose denied them their right to
an impartial jury. Courts should exercise judgment in preference to
the automatic reversal for "error" and ignore errors that do not
affect the essential fairness of a trial. To invalidate the result
of a 3-week trial because of a juror's mistaken, though honest,
response to a question, is to insist on something closer to
perfection than our judicial system can be expected to give. It
ill-serves the important end of finality to wipe the slate clean
simply to recreate the peremptory challenge process because counsel
lacked an item of information that he should have obtained from a
juror on voir dire
examination. The Court of Appeals'
standard is contrary to the practical necessities of judicial
management reflected in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 61 and the
harmless error statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2111. To obtain a new trial in
such a situation, a party must first demonstrate that a juror
failed to answer honestly a material question on voir
and then further show that a correct response would have
provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause. Pp. 464 U. S.
687 F.2d 338, reversed.
Page 464 U. S. 549
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which
BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR,
JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which
STEVENS and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post,
p. 464 U. S. 556
BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which
MARSHALL, J., joined, post,
p. 464 U. S.
JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.
Respondents, Billy Greenwood and his parents, sued petitioner
McDonough Power Equipment, Inc., to recover damages sustained by
Billy when his feet came in contact with the blades of a riding
lawnmower manufactured by petitioner. The United States District
Court for the District of Kansas entered judgment for petitioner
upon a jury verdict and denied respondents' motion for new trial.
On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
reversed the judgment of the District Court and ordered a new
trial. It held that the failure of a juror to respond affirmatively
to a question on voir dire
seeking to elicit information
about previous injuries to members of the juror's immediate family
had "prejudiced the Greenwoods' right to peremptory challenge," 687
F.2d 338, 342 (1982), and that a new trial was necessary to cure
this error. We granted certiorari, 462 U.S. 1130 (1983), and now
hold that respondents are not entitled to a new trial unless the
juror's failure to disclose denied respondents their right to an
During the voir dire
prior to the empaneling of the
six-member jury, respondents' attorney asked prospective jurors the
Page 464 U. S. 550
"Now, how many of you have yourself or any members of your
immediate family sustained any severe injury, not necessarily as
severe as Billy, but sustained any injuries whether it was an
accident at home, or on the farm or at work that resulted in any
disability or prolonged pain and suffering, that is you or any
members of your immediate family?"
App.19. Ronald Payton, who eventually became a juror, did not
respond to this question, which was addressed to the panel as a
whole. After a trial which extended over a 3-week period, the jury
found for petitioner McDonough. [Footnote 1
] Four days after judgment was entered for
petitioner, respondents moved under local Rule 23A for permission
to approach the members of the jury. In support of their motion,
respondents asserted that they were of "information and belief"
that juror Payton's son may have been injured at one time, a fact
which had not been revealed during voir dire. Id.
at 68. The District Court ruled that respondents had failed to show
just cause to approach the jury. Id.
Undeterred, the next day, respondents filed a second motion for
permission to approach the jury, attaching an affidavit from
respondent John Greenwood, [Footnote 2
] who asserted that, in
Page 464 U. S. 551
the course of his employment as a Navy recruiter, he had
reviewed the enlistment application of juror Payton's son. In that
application, Payton's son stated that he had been injured in the
explosion of a truck tire. The District Court granted respondents
permission to approach juror Payton regarding the injuries
allegedly sustained by his son. The District Court directed that
the inquiry should be brief and polite, and made in a manner
convenient to the juror. The District Court noted that it was not
"overly impressed with the significance of this particular
at 89. No provision was made to record the
inquiry of juror Payton.
On the same day that the District Court granted respondents
permission to approach juror Payton, respondents moved for a new
trial, asserting 18 grounds in justification, including the
District Court's alleged error in denying respondents' motion to
approach the jury. This was the only instance when respondents even
tangentially referred the District Court to the juror's failure to
respond as a ground for a new trial. Shortly after the parties
placed a telephone conference call to juror Payton, the District
Court denied respondents' motion for a new trial, finding that the
"matter was fairly and thoroughly tried, and that the jury's
verdict was a just one, well-supported by the evidence."
at 106. The District Court was never informed of the
results of the examination of juror Payton, nor did respondents
ever directly assert before the District Court that juror Payton's
nondisclosure warranted a new trial.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals proceeded directly to the merits
of respondents' claim that juror Payton's silence had prejudiced
their right to exercise peremptory challenges, rather than
remanding the case back to the District Court for a hearing.
] The Court of
Appeals simply recited the
Page 464 U. S. 552
recollections of counsel for each party of their conference
telephone call with juror Payton contained in their appellate
briefs, stating that the "unrevealed information" indicated
probable bias "because it revealed a particularly narrow concept of
what constitutes a serious injury." 687 F.2d at 343. The Court of
Appeals assumed that juror Payton had answered in good faith, but
"Good faith, however, is irrelevant to our inquiry. If an
average prospective juror would have disclosed the information, and
that information would have been significant and cogent evidence of
the juror's probable bias, a new trial is required to rectify the
failure to disclose it."
Page 464 U. S. 553
This Court has long held that "[a litigant] is entitled to a
fair trial but not a perfect one,' for there are no perfect
trials." Brown v. United States, 411 U.
S. 223, 411 U. S.
231-232 (1973), quoting Bruton v. United
States, 391 U. S. 123,
391 U. S. 135
(1968), and Lutwak v. United States, 344 U.
S. 604, 344 U. S. 619
(1953). Trials are costly, not only for the parties, but also for
the jurors performing their civic duty and for society, which pays
the judges and support personnel who manage the trials. It seems
doubtful that our judicial system would have the resources to
provide litigants with perfect trials, were they possible, and
still keep abreast of its constantly increasing caseload. Even this
straightforward products liability suit extended over a 3-week
We have also come a long way from the time when all trial error
was presumed prejudicial and reviewing courts were considered
"citadels of technicality.'" Kotteakos v. United
States, 328 U. S. 750,
328 U. S. 759
(1946), quoting Kavanagh, Improvement of Administration of Criminal
Justice by Exercise of Judicial Power, 11 A.B.A.J. 217, 222 (1925).
The harmless error rules adopted by this Court and Congress embody
the principle that courts should exercise judgment in preference to
the automatic reversal for "error," and ignore errors that do not
affect the essential fairness of the trial. See Kotteakos,
supra, at 328 U. S.
759-760. For example, the general rule governing motions
for a new trial in the district courts is contained in Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 61, which provides:
"No error . . . or defect in any ruling or order or in anything
done or omitted by the court or by any of the parties is ground for
granting a new trial or for setting aside a verdict . . . unless
refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with
substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding
disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which
does not affect the substantial rights of the parties."
Page 464 U. S. 554
While, in a narrow sense, Rule 61 applies only to the district
Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 1, it is well settled that
the appellate courts should act in accordance with the salutary
policy embodied in Rule 61. See, e.g., Keaton v. Atchison, T.
& S. F. R. Co.,
321 F.2d 317, 319 (CA7 1963); Box v.
306 F.2d 882, 887 (CA5 1962); De Santa v. Nehi
171 F.2d 696, 698 (CA2 1948). Congress has further
reinforced the application of Rule 61 by enacting the harmless
error statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2111, which applies directly to
appellate courts and which incorporates the same principle as that
found in Rule 61. See Tipton v. Socony Mobil Oil Co.,
375 U. S. 34
375 U. S. 37
(1963); United States v. Borden Co., 347 U.
, 347 U. S. 516
and n. 5 (1954). [Footnote
The ruling of the Court of Appeals in this case must be assessed
against this background. One touchstone of a fair trial is an
impartial trier of fact -- "a jury capable and willing to decide
the case solely on the evidence before it." Smith v.
Phillips, 455 U. S. 209
455 U. S. 217
(1982). Voir dire
examination serves to protect that right
by exposing possible biases, both known and unknown, on the part of
potential jurors. Demonstrated bias in the responses to questions
on voir dire
may result in a juror's being excused for
cause; hints of bias not sufficient to warrant challenge for cause
may assist parties in exercising their peremptory challenges. The
necessity of truthful answers by prospective jurors if this process
is to serve its purpose is obvious.
Page 464 U. S. 555
The critical question posed to juror Payton in this case asked
about "injuries . . . that resulted in any disability or prolonged
pain or suffering." App.19. Juror Payton apparently believed that
his son's broken leg sustained as a result of an exploding tire was
not such an injury. In response to a similar question from
petitioner's counsel, however, another juror related such a minor
incident as the fact that his 6-year-old son once caught his finger
in a bike chain. Id.
at 52. Yet another juror failed to
respond to the question posed to juror Payton, and only the
subsequent questioning of petitioner's counsel brought out that her
husband had been injured in a machinery accident. Id.
The varied responses to respondents' question on voir
testify to the fact that jurors are not necessarily
experts in English usage. Called as they are from all walks of
life, many may be uncertain as to the meaning of terms which are
relatively easily understood by lawyers and judges. Moreover, the
statutory qualifications for jurors require only a minimal
competency in the English language. 28 U.S.C. § 1865 (1976 ed. and
Supp. V). Thus, we cannot say, and we doubt that the Court of
Appeals could say, which of these three jurors was closer to the
"average juror" in his or her response to the question, but it is
evident that such a standard is difficult to apply and productive
To invalidate the result of a 3-week trial because of a juror's
mistaken, though honest, response to a question, is to insist on
something closer to perfection than our judicial system can be
expected to give. A trial represents an important investment of
private and social resources, and it ill-serves the important end
of finality to wipe the slate clean simply to recreate the
peremptory challenge process because counsel lacked an item of
information which objectively he should have obtained from a juror
on voir dire
examination. Whatever the merits of the Court
of Appeals' standard in a world which would redo and reconstruct
what had gone
Page 464 U. S. 556
before upon any evidence of abstract imperfection, we think it
is contrary to the practical necessities of judicial management
reflected in Rule 61 and § 2111. We hold that to obtain a new trial
in such a situation, a party must first demonstrate that a juror
failed to answer honestly a material question on voir
and then further show that a correct response would have
provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause. The motives for
concealing information may vary, but only those reasons that affect
a juror's impartiality can truly be said to affect the fairness of
Generally, motions for a new trial are committed to the
discretion of the district court. Montgomery Ward & Co. v.
Duncan, 311 U. S. 243
311 U. S. 251
(1940). The Court of Appeals was mistaken in deciding as it did
that respondents were entitled to a new trial. In the event that
the issue remains relevant after the Court of Appeals has disposed
of respondents' other contentions on appeal, the District Court may
hold a hearing to determine whether respondents are entitled to a
new trial under the principles we state here. The judgment of the
Court of Appeals is
Although respondents sued only petitioner McDonough, under
Kansas law, which applied in this diversity action, the jury was
permitted to consider the relative fault of three nondefendants:
Jeff Morris, a next-door neighbor who was operating the lawnmower
involved in the accident, Jeff's father, and Billy's mother. The
jury assessed Billy's damages in the amount of $375,000, and found
Jeff Morris 20% at fault, Jeff's father 45% at fault, and Billy's
mother 35% at fault. The jury determined that petitioner
McDonough's percentage of fault was zero.
It is not clear from the opinion of the Court of Appeals whether
the information stated in Greenwood's affidavit was known to
respondents or their counsel at the time of the voir dire
examination. If it were, of course, respondents would be barred
from later challenging the composition of the jury when they had
chosen not to interrogate juror Payton further upon receiving an
answer which they thought to be factually incorrect. See
Johnson v. Hill,
274 F.2d 110, 115-116 (CA8 1960).
Although neither party challenges the propriety of the Court of
Appeals' having disposed of the question on the merits, we believe
that the proper resolution of the legal issue should be made by the
District Court. See infra
at 464 U. S. 556
Nevertheless, we address the issue in order to correct the legal
standard the District Court should apply upon remand.
Both parties apparently agree that, during the telephone
conversation with juror Payton, he related that his son had
received a broken leg as the result of an exploding tire. Counsel
for respondents in their brief to the Court of Appeals recalled
Payton saying that "it did not make any difference whether his
son had been in an accident and was seriously injured,'" "`that
having accidents are a part of life,'" and that "`all his children
have been involved in accidents.'" Brief for Appellants in No.
80-1698 (CA10), p. 7. Counsel for petitioners recall Payton as
saying that he
"did not regard [his son's broken leg] as a 'severe' injury, and
as he understood the question, [the injury] did not result in any
'disability or prolonged pain and suffering.' As far as Mr. Payton
is concerned, he answered counsel's question honestly, and
correctly, by remaining silent."
Brief for Appellee in No. 80-1698 (CA10), p. 18.
Nevertheless, the manner in which the parties presented the
issue of juror Payton's failure to respond on voir dire
was highly unorthodox. While considerations of judicial economy
might have motivated the Court of Appeals in this case to proceed
directly to the issue of the effect of juror Payton's
nondisclosure, in cases in which a party is asserting a ground for
new trial, the normal procedure is to remand such issues to the
district court for resolution. Although petitioner does not dispute
respondents' version of the telephone call to juror Payton, it is
foreseeable that, in another such case, the parties could present
the appellate court with a continuing, difficult factual dispute.
Appellate tribunals are poor substitutes for trial courts for
developing a record or resolving factual controversies.
The text of 28 U.S.C. § 2111 reads in full:
"On the hearing of any appeal or writ of certiorari in any case,
the court shall give judgment after an examination of the record
without regard to errors or defects which do not affect the
substantial rights of the parties."
This provision traces its lineage to the harmless error
provision of § 269 of the former Judicial Code, which was enacted
in 1919. Act of Feb. 26, 1919, ch. 48, 40 Stat. 1181; see
Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U. S. 750
328 U. S.
-762 (1946); C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal
Practice and Procedure § 2881 (1973).
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom JUSTICE STEVENS and JUSTICE O'CONNOR
I agree with the Court that the proper inquiry in this case is
whether the plaintiffs had the benefit of an impartial trier of
fact. I also agree that, in most cases, the honesty or dishonesty
of a juror's response is the best initial indicator of whether the
juror in fact was impartial. I therefore join the Court's opinion,
but I write separately to state that I understand the Court's
holding not to foreclose the normal avenue of relief available to a
party who is asserting that he did not have the benefit of an
impartial jury. Thus, regardless of whether a juror's answer is
honest or dishonest, it remains within a trial court's option, in
determining whether a jury was biased, to order a post-trial
hearing at which the movant has the opportunity to demonstrate
actual bias or, in exceptional
Page 464 U. S. 557
circumstances, that the facts are such that bias is to be
inferred. See Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.
, 455 U. S.
-216 (1982); id.
at 455 U. S.
-224 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring).
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, concurring in
I agree with the Court that the Court of Appeals employed an
erroneous legal standard to determine whether a new trial was
required in this case, and that the Court of Appeals compounded
that error by failing to remand the case to the District Court for
a hearing and decision on the motion for new trial in the first
instance. I concur only in the judgment, however, because I have
difficulty understanding the import of the legal standard adopted
by the Court.
The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial because Ronald Payton,
who later was chosen as jury foreman, incorrectly answered an
important question posed to prospective jurors on voir
Specifically, although asked whether any family members
had "sustained any injuries . . . that resulted in any disability
or prolonged pain or suffering," Payton failed to disclose a
previous injury his son had incurred in a truck tire explosion. The
court concluded that, because the information available to counsel
during voir dire
was erroneous, Payton's failure to
respond "prejudiced the Greenwoods' right to peremptory challenge."
687 F.2d 338, 342 (CA10 1982). It therefore held that the
Greenwoods' motion for a new trial should have been granted, and
entered judgment granting the motion.
I agree with the Court that a finding that less than complete
information was available to counsel conducting voir dire
does not by itself require a new trial. I cannot join, however, in
the legal standard asserted by the Court's opinion. In my view, the
proper focus when ruling on a motion for new trial in this
situation should be on the bias of the juror and the resulting
prejudice to the litigant. More specifically, to be awarded a new
trial, a litigant should be required to demonstrate that the juror
incorrectly responded to
Page 464 U. S. 558
a material question on voir dire,
and that, under the
facts and circumstances surrounding the particular case, the juror
was biased against the moving litigant. See, e.g., McCoy v.
652 F.2d 654, 659-660 (CA6 1981).
When applying this standard, a court should recognize that
"[t]he bias of a prospective juror may be actual or implied;
that is, it may be bias in fact or bias conclusively presumed as
[a] matter of law."
United States v. Wood, 299 U.
, 299 U. S. 133
(1936). See also Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.
, 455 U. S.
-224 (1982) (O'CONNOR, J., concurring). Because the
bias of a juror will rarely be admitted by the juror himself,
"partly because the juror may have an interest in concealing his
own bias and partly because the juror may be unaware of it,"
at 455 U. S.
-222, it necessarily must be inferred from
surrounding facts and circumstances. Therefore, for a court to
determine properly whether bias exists, it must consider at least
two questions: are there any facts in the case suggesting that bias
should be conclusively presumed; and, if not, is it more probable
than not that the juror was actually biased against the litigant.
Whether the juror answered a particular question on voir
honestly or dishonestly, or whether an inaccurate answer
was inadvertent or intentional, are simply factors to be considered
in this latter determination of actual bias. *
cannot agree with the Court when it
Page 464 U. S. 559
asserts that a new trial is not warranted whenever a prospective
juror provides an honest answer to the question posed. Cf.
at 464 U. S. 556
One easily can imagine cases in which a prospective juror provides
what he subjectively believes to be an honest answer, yet that same
answer is objectively incorrect, and therefore suggests that the
individual would be a biased juror in the particular case.
Given the nature of this legal standard, and given that no claim
is raised in this case that bias should be conclusively presumed,
the Court of Appeals clearly erred by deciding the issue of juror
bias itself, rather than remanding the issue to the District Court
for a hearing and decision in the first instance. Motions for new
trial on the basis of juror bias are left to the sound discretion
of the trial court, and its determination should not be lightly
disturbed by an appellate court. This is especially true when
decision on the motion turns, as it does here, on the particular
facts and circumstances involved. See ante
at 464 U. S.
-552, n. 3, and 464 U. S. 556
The trial court in this case, however, did not reach the point of
exercising discretion, because it never was notified about the
results of the informal examination of juror Payton. Accordingly,
the case should be remanded to the District Court for a hearing and
decision consistent with the principles outlined above.
* The Court of Appeals recognized several other factors in this
case, not completely acknowledged by the Court's opinion, which
might suggest that juror Payton was biased or that his potential
bias resulted in prejudice to the Greenwoods. For example, by
claiming during his informal examination after trial that "having
accidents are a part of life," Payton may have displayed
insufficient sensitivity to the Greenwoods' claims in this product
liability action. This potential bias could only have been
exacerbated by the fact that Payton served as foreman of the jury.
Moreover, the jury initially returned a verdict assessing $0.00 in
damages despite the fact that Billy Greenwood lost both his feet in
the lawnmower accident; only upon reconvening after being
admonished by the trial judge did the jury assess damages totaling
$375,000. These factors should be considered along with any other
relevant facts and circumstances by the District Court on