Jury selection will stretch into a third day in the Ereck Plancher wrongful death trial.
Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans hoped to complete jury selection by 5 p.m. Tuesday, but it will take a third day to complete the process due to extensive objections and disputes among the attorneys. Evans said in his 17 years as a trial judge, he had never seen jury selection in a civil case take three days and strongly urged the attorneys to use "common sense" and pick up the pace of jury selection.
Evans released the current pool of 22 potential jurors and asked them return to the courthouse at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The judge and attorneys will eventually pick six jurors and two alternate jurors to hear the case.
Plancher, a 19-year-old football player, collapsed and died following a March 18, 2008 workout supervised by UCF coach George O'Leary and his staff.
An autopsy released in July 2008 stated Plancher had sickle cell trait, a condition that causes cells to warp and attack organs when the body is under extreme stress. The medical examiner determined Plancher's sickle cell trait was triggered and caused "vascular distress," contributing to his death.
His parents, Enock and Gisele Plancher, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the UCF board of trustees and UCF Athletics Association in March 2009, arguing UCF staff members failed to properly treat Ereck Plancher for complications of sickle cell trait that contributed to his death.
UCF called Plancher's death a tragedy and insists its staff did everything possible to save his life.
The attorneys representing the family of Ereck Plancher triggered a major change in the case Monday morning, withdrawing their claim against the UCF board of trustees.
Attorney Steve Yerrid stated the Plancher family would proceed with its claim against the UCF Athletics Association, which Evans previously ruled is a private entity not protected by Florida laws capping potential payouts beyond $200,000 without approval from the state agency. As a result, UCFAA could face unlimited claims in the case.
UCFAA plans to appeal the ruling on its status as a private entity following the completion of the jury trial.
Plancher's parents were in the courtroom again Tuesday and are expected to attend the entire trial.
The judge asked the potential jurors Monday whether they had heard about the civil lawsuit and would be able to offer a fair evaluation of the facts, whether they knew anyone directly involved with the case and whether they had any personal hardships that would make it difficult for them to serve on the jury for the trial expected to last three weeks. Evans ultimately dismissed 18 potential jurors from the first pool and eight potential jurors from the second pool of potential jurors Monday. It left the judge with 32 potential jurors before the attorneys began asking questions and using their strike options Tuesday.
Evans decided to dismiss two more potential jurors Tuesday morning after considering their conflicts for the evening because they had long-time family vacation plans.
Another potential juror was removed because she did not appear for duty Tuesday morning.
The Plancher family attorneys lobbied to keep minority potential jurors despite potential scheduling conflicts, while the UCF Athletics Association attorneys were eager to keep business owners in the pool of potential jurors despite economic strain on their families.
Before the potential jurors entered the courtroom Tuesday, the judge address the attorneys over instructions that will be read to the jury before opening statements. The judge grew frustrated as the debate before the jurors entered the courtroom continued for two hours.
Many of the special jury instructions, including the potential note about liability waivers Ereck Plancher signed before joining the UCF football team, were proposed by the UCF attorneys.
UCFAA attorney Kevin Taylor also asked to take the jury on a tour of the weight room and indoor practice facility, the scene of Plancher's final workout.
Yerrid protested the suggestion, stating it would be harder for the jurors to separate UCF and the UCF Athletics Association following a tour of facilities on the main campus. He also stated conditions may not be the same as the day of Plancher's death and the same goals could be accomplished with pictures of the facilities.
Taylor said the jurors would get a much better understanding of key facts in the case if they saw the venue being described.
The judge deferred a ruling on many of the issues, including the potential tour of the UCF weight room and indoor practice facility.
UCFAA's attorney also wanted the judge recognize that while attorneys will be careful to note the distinction between UCF and the athletics association, witnesses who consider themselves representatives of UCF may slip up in front of the jury.
The Plancher family attorneys countered that UCF Athletics Association was set up as a private entity with clear legal separation from the main university.
The judge said he already ruled on UCFAA's status as a private entity and would not revisit the issue. He said UCFAA had operated as private entity exempt from state laws. He noted UCFAA rejected public records requests from the Orlando Sentinel and its staff members were not part of the state retirement program.
"It is a separate, distinct entity," Evans said. "And I would like to keep this trial on that ground. If someone innocently delclares that statement, I will not declare a mistrial. If it rises to the level of confuson, I may have a special instruction. But that distinction was created long before I became involved in this."
The jurors entered the courtroom around 10:30 a.m. Another woman in the potential jury pool was excused because she needed to care for her child with a rare medical condition.
Yerrid began questioning the potential jurors, but he was interrupted by at least six objections by the UCFAA attorneys in 45 minutes. The judge sustained one of the objections and eventually gave the jury a 10-minute break with the hope of working through the issues.
UCFAA attorneys argued Yerrid was raising issues that were either not allowed during a civil trial or had been ruled off limits during pretrial hearings. Yerrid said he was only trying to raise reasonable questions to help him evaluate the jury and many of the UCFAA objections were overruled.
The judge said Yerrid was moving into an area that could be questionable and urged him to take care not to make statements that could potentially force a mistrial.
Evans brought the potential jurors back into the courtroom and dismissed them for a lunch break from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
When the potential jury returned in the afternoon, the judge dismissed two people due to potential travel conflicts. Evans excused another potential juror who had extensive experience as a civil attorney and didn't think she could be a neutral observer. He also excused a man who said he said English was his second language and it was tough to understand the proceedings.
Their departures left the court with 25 potential jurors.
Yerrid resumed questioning the pool of jury candidates, asking whether they had any concerns about frivolous civil lawsuits, compensating people for emotional damages and the payment of damages.
UCFAA attorneys continued to object to his line of questioning and for trying to ingratiate himself to the jury.
Three of the potential jurors identified themselves as UCF graduates and a fourth person said he paid his daughter's UCF tuition. One of them said she was a recent UCF graduate who wasn't sure she could consider potential damages against the school because it would negatively impact UCF and the value of her degree.
Yerrid asked about the potential jurors' knowledge of sickle cell trait, experience with the loss of family members, their personal interests and their favorite movies. The potential jurors laughed often in response to his questions and their peers' answers.
Attorney Dan Shapiro, who represents UCF Athletics Association, began questioning the potential jurors at about 3:40 p.m.
He began by asking for the group what it considered to be characteristics of a perfect juror. Shapiro stressed the importance of being fair, balanced, keeping an open mind, being patient throughout a long trial and the use of common sense while evaluating the case.
Shapiro spoke with four potential jurors who have been to UCF football games. He also spoke with a USF fan in the jury pool. The man, who said he does heavily favor USF over UCF, said he would be able to set his rooting interests aside if he was selected for the jury. Fans of Florida, Florida State and Miami in the potential jury pool said they would have no problem setting those allegiances aside while hearing about the case.
The judge announced three additional people were dismissed the jury pool, including a man who said he felt everyone in the community pays whenever any institution is forced to pay a civil judgment. Evans sent the rest of the group home at 5 p.m. and asked them to return at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
It left the court with a potential jury pool of 22 people.
Shapiro is expected to resume his questioning of the jury pool Wednesday morning. The judge may automatically dismiss more jurors when the questions are completed. Then the attorneys may use their right to strike potential jurors.
Evans said he hoped to seat the jury and complete opening arguments Wednesday.
Check back for live updates when the trial resumes Wednesday. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6353. Read By Iliana Limón's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/knightsnotepad.Copyright © 2015, CT Now