ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Special Appeals lectured a Baltimore Circuit Court judge this week on the potentially corruptive influences of chocolate chip cookies in a courtroom.
The court’s cookie comments were an aside in a Tuesday decision on a multimillion-dollar asbestos case that was appealed from the Baltimore Circuit Court.
Defense attorneys in that case said the jury may have been influenced by cookies, baked by one of the plaintiffs and passed around the courtroom as part of a communal snack jar kept by Judge Edward Angeletti.
In their appeal, they pointed out Dorothy Fertig, the cookie baker, received $1 million more than any of the other defendants in the case.
Fertig had sued several companies for the death of her husband, Robert, who died in 1994 of mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos. She originally sought $500,000 in damages, but the jury awarded her $3 million.
Angeletti regularly encouraged those in his courtroom to contribute to the snack jar, and recognized their contributions on the record. All contributions consisted of store-bought candy — except for Fertig’s.
After asking if their objection was serious, Angeletti ruled that Fertig’s sugary gift to the jurors was harmless.
“It is the same as the candy and has no improper impact on anyone and even to suggest it, I think, is inappropriate,” Angeletti said.
The judge later limited jurors to just one cookie a piece, which brought laughter from the courtroom, according to court documents.
The appeals court ruled against Fertig on other grounds, making the cookie complaint moot. But a three-judge panel of the court said it wanted to address the snack-practice “for guidance purposes.”
The court noted that “jurors virtually never fall asleep during trials” in Angeletti’s courtroom and that the judge’s snack jar practice may have been well-intentioned. But the appeals court was “concerned that the potential for abuse may outweigh the benefit.”
“Parties may feel compelled to contribute to the snack jar out of fear that the court or jury will disfavor them if they do not … they may fear that the jury will reward the party that makes the more desirable contribution,” wrote Judge Robert F. Fischer.
It took no formal action against Angeletti, however.
Angeletti said he could not comment on any aspect of the case since its final outcome has yet to be determined.