In trials shown in movies and on TV, there may be extensive scenes showing the attorneys presenting evidence and making arguments. Attorneys make their closing argument to the jury, which then leaves to deliberate the case. This sequence leaves out a vitally important but often overlooked part of the case – jury instructions. Paying attention to this phase of a personal injury trial can be the difference between winning and losing.
What are Jury Instructions?
Trials are not just about uncovering facts or resolving factual disputes, although that is obviously important. They are also about applying those facts to the law.
For example, in a criminal case, assume the facts show that someone accidentally hit someone else with his or her car. How does the jury know what to do with those facts? How would a jury know whether it is actually a crime to hit someone accidentally? The answer is that the jury must be instructed on what the law is.
For example, the judge may tell the jury that if they think the accused acted intentionally, it is a crime, but if it was an accident, it is not.
This is an overly simplistic explanation, but the point is the same: Someone must tell a jury what law they are going to use once they determine the facts of a case.
Instructions in an Injury Case
In a personal injury trial, jury instructions can make all the difference. If a jury were to be told that negligence is when someone acts intentionally and purposefully—an incorrect statement—then the victim may have a hard time showing that someone who accidentally rear-ended them in a car is liable for negligence. If that same jury is told that negligence is the failure to act as a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances would, then the burden for the victim becomes easier. Now, the accidental rear-end fits the definition of negligence, and the jury is more likely to find for the victim.
There are jury instructions for almost every part of a personal injury trial. In a negligence case, the jury will be told what the definition of negligence is. If the case is a car accident, the jury may be told that the victim must suffer a permanent, or severe injury, as is the law.
The court will explain to the jury how to find causation—that is, that the injury must be a natural or continuous sequence from the accident or else that the accident produced or substantially led to the injury. If the case involves the exacerbation of a pre-existing injury, there is a jury instruction for that, as well.
Procedural instructions are given. For example, a jury will be told to ignore evidence that has been stricken. A jury will be told that visual aids may be for demonstration but should not be considered as evidence.
Sometimes, evidence comes out during a trial that should not have been disclosed to a jury. Judges may give jurors a special instruction to ignore what they heard. This way, a case can continue and a fair verdict can be reached without having to start the trial over just because something was said in court that should not have been.
Different Instructions Apply to Different Cases
As you probably know from reading this blog, negligence comes in many forms, and juries may receive specific instructions on each one. For example, if a plaintiff is seeking to find an employer vicariously liable for an employee, the jury will be told what the standard is to make that finding.
Landowners have different duties to visitors depending on whether the visitor is a trespasser, a trespasser that the property owner knows is there, a business guest, or a personal guest in a home. Facts will determine what category the victim fits in. But jury instructions will tell the jury the law to be applied for each category.
Just like claims and burdens the victim must prove, each defense also will have jury instructions. The instructions will remind the jury that although a victim must prove the elements of a case, a defendant must prove any defenses that it has to the case.
Instructions for Damages
Damages have their own jury instructions. The jury will be told that they must find that damages were proven sufficiently by the victim. The jury will be told how to handle situations where more than one defendant, or even a party that is not named in the lawsuit, is liable for some or all of the victim’s damages.
Mortality tables can be given, in order to calculate damages that may last a lifetime. Statutes that provide special damages, or limit certain damages, such as survivor actions or wrongful death, also have their own specific instructions.
Where the Instructions Come From
There are model jury instructions, which set out the language to be used in the more common situations such as the ones named above. These standard instructions are proposed by a standing committee that recommends them to the Florida Supreme Court for adoption. The model instructions mean that in many instructions do not have to be drafted from scratch.
Every case is different, and many times, the attorneys will have to submit to the court the jury instructions they propose that the Court use. Of course, each side will submit language that may be more in their own favor than the other side. The judge will take both versions into account, and either adopt one party’s instructions, or fashion a compromise of both.
Although jury instructions are generally statements of the law to be applied, they cannot be written in legalese. Language must be drafted that a normal person outside of the legal community can understand. The language also should not be vague or ambiguous, at the risk of jurors misinterpreting them.
Instructions are so important, that in cases where there are model instructions and the parties generally know what they will say before the trial, many attorneys will mentally start building their case with the instructions in mind.
Make sure that every phase of your injury trial gets the attention that it deserves. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation if you are injured as a result of the negligence of someone else.