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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:Four-year-old Amber Vasquez died in a low-speed neighborhood traffic collision, after the passenger-side airbag in her aunt’s Hyundai Accent deployed with enough force to catch Amber’s chin and break her neck. The driver of the other car had turned in front of the Hyundai, and the force of the collision threw Amber forward in her seat. It is undisputed that Amber was not buckled into her front-seat seat belt at the time of the accident. Amber’s parents, Victor and Brenda Vasquez, sued Hyundai Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor America Inc., contending that Hyundai had placed the airbag incorrectly, and that the airbag had deployed with too much force in this low-impact accident. Hyundai responded that the airbag that killed Amber was not defective and that a child wearing a seat belt, as state law requires, or sitting in the back seat, as the car’s warnings cautioned, would not have been injured by its deployment. The trial judge dismissed two jury panels before seating the jury in the case from a third. During the first voir dire, Amber’s counsel asked jurors whether the fact that Amber was not wearing her seat belt would determine their verdict. After numerous jurors indicated that the lack of a seat belt would determine their verdict, the trial court dismissed the jury panel. During the second voir dire, the trial judge questioned the jurors along similar lines, with slightly fewer, but nonetheless significant, affirmative responses. The court again dismissed the panel. Before the third voir dire, the trial judge discussed with plaintiff’s counsel her concern that the previous jury panels had misunderstood the inquiry about placing a child in the front seat without a buckled seat belt to be one about the weight they could give to particular evidence in the case, rather than whether they could fairly consider all of the evidence presented. In response to counsel’s request to ask general questions “about belting, seat belting, and seat-belting habits much akin to what I did the last time I did general voir dire,” the trial court responded, “I am going to let you ask those questions.” Thereafter, the trial court allowed counsel to ask “general questions about belting” and to inquire about jurors’ personal seat-belt habits, but she did not allow disclosure that Amber was not wearing one at the time of the accident. Counsel asked questions about whether the jurors buckled their seat belts on short trips, before leaving the garage, before exiting a driveway and before leaving a parking spot. At the conclusion of the third voir dire, the trial court excused three of the first 28 jurors for cause and seated a 12-member jury and one alternate. The jury heard evidence for three weeks and returned a verdict in favor of Hyundai. It found no design defect and assessed liability for Amber’s death to the two drivers (75 percent to Amber’s aunt, and 25 percent to the other driver). The trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment. A panel of the 4th Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Upon rehearing en banc, however, the court of appeals reversed, holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in disallowing the inquiry, because the proposed question focuses “on the ability of the jurors to be fair.” HOLDING:Reversed and remanded. If the voir dire includes a preview of the evidence, a trial court does not abuse its discretion in refusing to allow questions that seek to determine the weight to be given (or not to be given) a particular fact or set of relevant facts, the court holds. If the trial judge permits questions about the weight jurors would give relevant case facts, then the jurors’ responses to such questions are not disqualifying, because, while such responses reveal a fact-specific opinion, one cannot conclude they reveal an improper subject-matter bias. The Vasquezes contend the trial court erred in refusing to allow the following inquiry to the jurors: THE COURT: What is the type of question you need to ask other than what has already been asked about their own individual use of seat belts or not seat belts? [PLAINTIFFS' COUNSEL]: Your Honor, I need to know whether or not they would be predisposed regardless of the evidence to � Their preconceived notion is that if there is no seat belt in use, no matter what else the evidence is, that they could not be fair and impartial. THE COURT: And that’s the type of question you are asking to ask? [PLAINTIFFS' COUNSEL]: That’s the kind of question I need to ask . . . . After Hyundai’s objection that the question would “pretest these jurors about the facts of this case,” the trial judge stated: THE COURT: All right. I’m going to sustain the objection. We are not going to go any further into seat belts. . . . The substance of a question, not its form, determines whether it probes for prejudices or previews a probable verdict. The trial court in this case reasonably could have concluded that the substance of the proposed question did not present a basis for disqualifying a juror for cause, and instead sought to test the weight jurors would place on the relevant fact that Amber was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. Thus, the trial judge did not abuse her discretion in refusing to allow it. In sustaining Hyundai’s objection, however, the trial judge also ruled: “We are not going to go any further into seat belts.” In so ruling, the trial judge reversed an earlier decision to allow further follow up about seat-belt usage, during the time allotted to counsel to question jurors individually at the bench. In sustaining an objection to an improper voir dire question, a trial court should not foreclose all inquiry about a relevant topic. The Vasquezes’ complaint as to this part of the trial court’s ruling, however, is not preserved, the court decides. The trial court knew counsel wanted to further inquire in some manner about seat belts. But the trial court determined that the way in which counsel posed the inquiry confused the jury and elicited precommitment, a call that the dissents agree fell within its discretion. Counsel’s continued pursuit of the same inquiry did not preserve error on other inquiries that might have been proper had counsel posed them. “We cannot infer, as the dissents suggest, from the fact that the trial judge allowed other questions in the first voir dire that she would not have allowed other questions in the third, had counsel presented them in response to her request for the type of questions counsel sought to ask. the record does not present a sufficient basis for review of the trial court’s ruling foreclosing further inquiry into seat belts.” OPINION:Bland, Jane, J.; Hecht, O’Neill, Brister, Willett and Cayce, JJ., join. DISSENT:Medina, J.; Wainwright and Johnson, JJ., join. “We can all agree that (1) litigants are entitled to fair and impartial jurors, (2) voir dire should not be used as an exercise to preview the verdict, and (3) trial courts must necessarily have broad discretion when conducting voir dire. That said, I do not agree that a trial court can totally divorce the legitimate search for bias and prejudice during voir dire from all material facts in the case. I also disagree with the Court’s statement of the issue in this case because this case is not simply about the weight prospective jurors may attach to certain evidence but whether such jurors can follow their oath and the court’s instructions. I believe that the issue is whether the trial court abused its discretion when it cut off questioning about seat belts; specifically questions about whether members of the venire would fairly consider all the evidence in the product liability and wrongful death suit, knowing that the decedent was not wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident.” DISSENT:Wainwright, J.; Johnson, J., joins. “Certainly there is no entitlement to ask a specific question during voir dire. Even if a proper question to a jury panel is barred by a trial court, counsel can often rephrase the question to probe the relevant subject. I agree with Justice Medina; the central issue in this case should not be the propriety of asking this one question. The key issue is the trial court’s barring counsel from inquiring about an entire and admittedly relevant subject during voir dire. This does not mean that voir dire should be lengthy, only that properly limited voir dire should be allowed on the important issues in a case. . . . “Because the Court sidesteps the harder issue posed by this case and fails to recognize the asserted error was preserved (as the record shows and the trial court and Hyundai acknowledge), I respectfully dissent.”

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