What are Jury Instructions and Why Do They Matter?
Jury instructions, also known as “jury charges” or “the charge” among lawyers, are the written set of instructions that a judge will read to the jury at the beginning and end of a trial in order to educate the jury on their role and obligations in connection with deciding a case. Jury instructions – especially the instructions given at the close of a case before the jury retires to deliberate – are among the most important elements of any trial, as they provide the jury with the law upon which they must decide the case before them. Although the substance of the jury instructions will vary from case to case, it is very important to understand the means and methods by which lawyers and judges select jury instructions, as these are consistent throughout every case. In this article, I will explain the basics of why jury instructions are so important, and how top trial lawyers will attempt to mold the presentation of their case in order to ensure that favorable jury instructions are read to the jury. In many cases, whether or not a particular jury instruction is read at trial has a material – if not determinitive – effect on the jury’s verdict.
Who Writes Jury Instructions?
The jury instructions in the vast majority of personal injury cases are chosen from the New York Pattern Jury Instructions (the “Pattern Charges”). The Pattern Charges are written and edited by a team of judges, lawyers and law professors with the aim of capturing the decisions that a jury must make in order to determine the outcome of a case. The authors of the Pattern Charges review case law (decisions of courts) involving particular types of cases and attempt to distill the law in a particular area so that it is easy to understand for non-lawyers (i.e., jurors) when they are required to decide a certain category of case. In most cases, the Pattern Charges contain jury instructions that pose questions that conform sufficiently to the evidence before a court so that a jury may properly decide the case by answering the pre-formulated questions contained therein. Judges and lawyers are often comfortable using the jury instructions contained in the Pattern Charges because they know that the Pattern Charges are properly researched, and allow the jury to easiliy answer all of the legal questions required to properly decide a case.
However, some cases contain nuances or unusual situations that the instructions in the Pattern Charges do not adequately address. In such a case, judges and lawyers may agree to write their own unique instructions, or to modify the Pattern Charges to better answer the questions that will be before the jury in a particular case.
The selection, modification and/or creation of jury instructions is an art form, not a science. The best personal injury trial lawyers will always analyze your personal injury case with jury instructions in mind, and will make sure that your case is presented so as to subtley suggest answers to questions contained in the Pattern Charges to the jury through a case; or will fight to ensure that favorable jury instructions are written – or that favorable modifications to the Pattern Charges are used – and presented to the jury so that you will have the best possible chance of victory at trial.
Pre-Trial Jury Instructions.
The function of pre-trial jury instructions is to set the basic rules by which the jury must evaluate a case and to tell the jury a little bit about how the trial process works. These rules are designed to give the jury a framework into which to attempt to fit what they hear from the witnesses and lawyers during the trial within the legal rules that will be presented to them in the post-trial jury instructions and to instruct the jury on the functions of the trial court. The pre-trial jury instructions are (mostly) procedural; they are designed to ensure that the jury understands how they must think in order to give each of the litigants before them a fair trial.
An example of a pre-trial jury instruction that a judge will read to the jury regarding the function of the Court and the parties to a case is as follows (taken from Section 1:6 of the Pattern Charges): “After the summations, I will instruct you on the rules of law applicable to the case and you will then retire for your deliberations. Your function as jurors is to decide what has or has not been proved and apply the rules of law that I give you to the facts as you find them to be. The decision you reach will be your verdict. Your decision will be based on the testimony that you hear and the exhibits that will be received in evidence during the trial. You are the sole and exclusive judges of the facts and nothing I say or do should be taken by you as any indication of my opinion as to the facts. As to the facts, neither I nor anyone else may invade your province. I will preside impartially and not express any opinion concerning the facts. Any opinions of mine on the facts would, in any event, be totally irrelevant because the facts are for you to decide. On the other hand, and with equal emphasis, I instruct you that in accordance with the oath you took as jurors you are required to accept the rules of law that I give you whether you agree with them or not. You are not to ask anyone else about the law. [If a lawyer or judge is a member of the jury, the following should be added: including the lawyer or judge serving as a juror.] You should not consider or accept any advice about the law from anyone else but me.”
With some exceptions, the pre-trial jury instructions are essentially the same in every personal injury trial. Although jury instructions are requested by lawyers after the close of evidence in a case in a conference with the judge and attorneys held before summations are presented, many judges simply read the same pre-trial jury instructions in every case, and thus attorneys do not often need to worry too much about their requests for pre-trial jury instructions (although, obviously, exceptions to this rule exist depending on the case).
Post-Trial Jury Instructions.
The two primary functions of the majority of the post-trial jury instructions are to remind the jury of its procedural obligations to the litigants, and to provide the jury with plain-english versions of the law governing a particular case so that the jury may make its determination on the substantive merits of the case (i.e., the evidence and argument) before it. The selection of post-trial jury instructions – unlike the pre-trial jury instructions – differs between every case. Top personal injury trial lawyers will strategize from the very start, crafting the presentation of their case to the jury so as to ensure that favorable jury instructions are selected and read to the jury by the judge. Exceptionally wise trial lawyers will actually begin their trial preparation process by identifying potential jury instructions that may apply to a particular case and working backwards to mold their presentation of the evidence to induce the selection of favorable instructions and to undermine grounds for selection of unfavorable instructions.
The importance of the selection of post-trial jury instructions is best illustrated by an example. Imagine a case with the following facts: a little girl is playing on a playground in Crotona Park in the Bronx when she is caused to slip from the monkey bars and break her leg. The accident was caused by dangerously wet and slippery conditions on the monkey bars; the bars were wet because they were positioned too close to a set of fountains shooting water up into the air under which children can play and cool off during the hot New York City summer months. The little girl and her family sue the City of New York, alleging that the placement of the fountains in such close proximity to the monkey bars was negligent. Under the law, the little girl and her family must prove that the wetness of the monkey bars was dangerous, that the City of New York knew or should have known of this dangerous condition, and that the City of New York proximately caused the little girl’s injuries because of its failure to remedy the condition (i.e., to design the park so as to avoid the creation of this dangerously slippery condition).
In this case, the most difficult element of proof will surely be “notice,” proving that the City of New York knew or should have known of the dangerous condition that caused the little girl’s terrible accident. A skilled trial lawyer will immediately recognize this, and will want to make sure that the case is presented so as to ensure selection of a jury instruction that will not allow the City of New York to win this case on the question of “notice.” The trial lawyer will thus plan his or her case around ensuring that the “recurrent condition” charge – a jury instruction that tells the jury that the City of New York is charged, as a matter of law, with notice – is selected. To do this, the trial lawyer will put evidence before the jury, likely in the form of a witness with knowledge of the park who will testify that they have witnessed the dangerous condition several times before the little girl’s accident, that demonstrates that it is likely that the condition complianed of was constantly present. The trial lawyer will show that the City of New York, had it bothered to look, would have identified and fixed the dangerous condition in question. This will give the judge no choice but to recognize that the law on “recurrent conditions” applies to the case, and thus will not allow the City of New York to claim that it did not know about the dangerously wet condition of the monkey bars, thus making the path for victory for the little girl much easier.
How Can I Learn More?
My team of expert trial lawyers stands ready to discuss jury instructions, or any other aspect of your Bronx personal injury case, with you and your family. Please call me at (718) 354-8000 to learn more.