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Instructions help jurors interpret the facts

Likely one of the least know aspects of litigation is that of jury instructions. Jury instructions are exactly what they sound like; instructions to the jury. Instructions for what, you might be asking yourself. Well… instructions about how to interpret the facts and the law that have been presented, and how the jury should decide the case.Let that simmer awhile. Soak it up.Your next question might well be, “What?” They’re going to give instructions about how we the jury are supposed to think about the case? Well, in a word, yeah. OK, not exactly.Before the trail begins, the lawyers who will try the case submit proposed jury instructions, in writing, to the Court for its consideration. These instructions generally concern elements of each of the particular causes of action which must be proved in order for the plaintiff to carry his or her burden of proof to prevail in the litigation. The judge and trial lawyers work out precisely which instructions will be given to the jury and the exact language that will be employed in giving them.OK, let’s back up a second here. First, what is an “element?” Second, what is a “cause of action?” And third, what is a “burden of proof?”Well, an element is not a heavy metal, an inert gas, or any other member of the Periodic Table. Think of an element (at least in legal terms) as sort of like a building block. An element is one of the pieces that must be constructed and supported in order to support the particular theory of law upon which the plaintiff hopes to prevail in the litigation. The cause of action, then, is the theory of law that the various elements support.Another way of thinking of the elements to a cause of action is to consider them as a chain of events that must followed in an unbroken line leading to a particular result. If someone commits a first degree murder, for example, they must: premeditate (that is, think about the crime in advance and plan it); take the acts (such as pulling the trigger of a gun); and succeed in killing the victim. Although this is admittedly simplistic, each of these steps (premeditation, acting, and succeeding) are “elements” of the crime of murder.In civil litigation (as opposed to criminal prosecution where the equivalent of a cause of action is a “charge”), a “cause of action” a theory upon which the plaintiff brings his or her case and upon which he or she hopes to prevail. Is it negligence the plaintiff claims? Is if fraud? Is breach of contract the cause of action upon which the plaintiff is pinning his or her hopes?You might note that I said “a” theory rather than “the” theory, and that was intentional. In civil law (that is, lawsuits for money or to compel a certain action or forbearance of the defendant, as distinguished from criminal law whose intent it is to exact a penalty), suit may be brought via “alternative pleading.” What this means, again admittedly simplistically, is that the act or combination of acts performed or committed by the defendant that led to the lawsuit may give rise to claims by the plaintiff under various different theories of law. And the plaintiff may bring suit pursuant to all the applicable theories in one action or lawsuit. In other words, instead of pleading for recovery under a theory of negligence alone, the plaintiff may also assert (so long as the facts support it), prayer for relief under a theory of breach of contract, intentional misrepresentation or fraud, or what ever other available theories the facts of the case may support.What may seem strange to the lay person is that these various theories of law may be conflicting. They represent a sort of Didactic argument the plaintiff’s lawyer is having with him or herself. The plaintiff, through the lawyer, may present various conflicting theories of recovery (that is, various causes of action) which, if read together, may refute each other or conflict with each other. The bottom line is that the Court does not read them together, but rather considers each as if it were standing alone.Okay, the elements are the building blocks. The causes of action are the structure built by the elements and provide the theories of law upon which the prayer of recovery is based. That leaves “burdens of proof.” What then are those? Think of a burden of proof as a hurdle in a running race. How high the hurdle is is the burden of proof. Burdens may vary (depending on the particular cause of action upon which it is based) from, essentially, “more likely than not (think of a low hurdle, such as in a steeplechase), to “beyond any reasonable doubt (i.e., “almost absolutely certain; think of the hurdles in a 120 meter high hurdle race).The burden of proof then, is how high the plaintiff must leap to clear the legal hurdles of proof.Jury instructions inform the jury of the context in which they are to consider the facts, what elements must be proved, and what the applicable burden of proof is which must be overcome to prove the case. Without detailed legal knowledge, jury instructions are essential in order for the jurors to “follow the ball” and come to an appropriate legal conclusion of guilt, innocence, right or wrong and all of this, of course, is about to be of great consequence in the Eagle County “trial of the century.”


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