Paul Grimaldi writes in the Providence Journal that a federal judge declared a mistrial Friday in the case of a Vermont businessman suing the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shop chain after jurors admitted discussing their views of the trial among themselves.
“I think this jury is thoroughly infected,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux. “One juror clearly expressed an opinion about who should win the case.”
Lagueux made his decision after lawyers for the businessman, Irwin Barkan, sought to have a mistrial declared after just the first day of a hearing on his lawsuit. The judge said he would reschedule the trial sometime in January.
The case stems from 2005, three years after Barkan bought the rights to run Dunkin’ Donut’s coffee shops in downtown Providence.
The two sides had been arguing for months over franchise fees, loan payments and rent bills. The chain wanted nearly $2 million from him and tried to revoke his operating permits.
The case landed in U.S. District Court for a time before making a stop in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where three Rhode Islanders ended up with Barkan’s stores after a contentious process that saw one sale nullified by a judge amid allegations of bid rigging.
Eventually, Barkan’s shops were auctioned off for $4.5 million.
The businessman has been trying to recoup money from Dunkin’ Donuts ever since.
The two sides never reached a settlement and the fight landed back in U.S. District Court this year.
Weeks before the trial started, Barkan, of Waitsfield, Vt., said he was looking forward to going to court.
“I’m a firm believer in the jury system,” Barkan said. “I am anxious to tell the jury my story.”
He got started Thursday and was about 20 minutes into his testimony on the first day of the trial when Lagueux ended the hearing for the day.
Sometime between then and the time the trial was to resume Friday afternoon, Barkan’s lawyers got wind that the jurors had talked about the case and that at least one had read a newspaper article about the first day’s proceedings.
They asked for a mistrial.
Lagueux and lawyers for both sides interviewed three jurors in the judge’s chambers before he ruled on the motion.
Later in court, one of Barkan’s lawyers, Elizabeth Noonan, said: “It became apparent that one juror had already made up his mind.”
Lagueux granted the motion despite the objections of Dunkin’ Donuts lawyer, Arthur L. Pressman.
“This jury panel is not tainted, but is in need of clarifying instruction,” Pressman said.
Lagueux replied: “This is a good time for a mistrial because it’s early and we haven’t wasted a lot of time.”
Lagueux laid part of the blame on himself, he said, for failing to clearly instruct jurors not to read or listen to news reports about the case.
“I am also troubled by the newspaper report,” he said. “That’s ground for a mistrial itself … I forgot to tell the jurors not to read newspaper articles.”