Vail Law: Jury instructions help create good decisions
Vail, CO, Colorado
Likely one of the least-known aspects of litigation is that of jury instructions. The simple definition of jury instructions is that members are told how to interpret the facts and the law that have been presented, and how they should decide the case.
Let that simmer awhile, Vail Valley readers.
Your next question might well be, “They’re going to give instructions about how the jury is supposed to think about the case?” Yes, but not exactly.
Before a trial begins, the lawyers who will try the case submit proposed jury instructions, in writing, to the court for consideration. These instructions generally concern elements of the claims which must be proved in order for the plaintiff 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.
In law, 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, 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 claim, then, is the theory of law that the various elements support.
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Another way of thinking of the elements to a claim 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, he 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, a claim is a legal theory upon which the plaintiff brings his or her case and upon which he or she hopes to prevail. Those can include, but are not limited to, negligence, fraud or Is breach of contract
You might note that I said “a” theory rather than “the” theoryl. 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 conflict. They represent a sort of argument the plaintiff’s lawyer is having with himself. The plaintiff, through the lawyer, may present various claims which, if read together, may conflict with each other. The court does not read them together, though, but rather considers each as if it were standing alone.
So, the elements are the building blocks. The claims 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.”
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 claim upon which it is based, from, essentially, “more likely than not (a low hurdle), to “beyond any reasonable doubt” (think of the hurdles in a 120 meter high hurdle race).
The burden of proof then, is how high the plaintiff must leap.
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 to prove the case. Without detailed legal knowledge, jury instructions are essential in order for the jurors to follow the bouncing ball of litigation and come to an appropriate legal conclusion of guilt or innocence, right or wrong.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowner’s associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or by e-mail at email@example.com.