Defining Unreasonably Indefinite Words, Like “Reasonable”

ooppOne of my great pleasures in raising my daughter is watching her encounter and struggle to make sense of the inherent ambiguities of our language. Puns are a particular favorite. She first learns to draw a picture. Then her mother suggests she’s going to draw her a bath. She gets into bed and draws up the covers. We have yet to draw a conclusion, but that’s coming. Whenever we encounter a word with multiple meanings, it is a simple matter to draw her attention back (pun intended) to the d-word.

I am not a poet, but I do delight in the elusive, liquid ambiguity inherent in language. Except, that is, when drafting (and hoping a jury will understand and follow) jury instructions. Then the indeterminate nature of our language can become an obstacle. An obstacle to understanding. An obstacle to winning.

A great example occurs when we ask jurors to apply a “reasonableness” standard. Was a driver’s operation of his vehicle reasonable? Did the doctor act reasonably when he did not order a particular diagnostic procedure? Was it reasonable for the insurance carrier to deny coverage based on the information available to it?

Whatever issues scholars raise about the “reasonableness” standard, I’m speaking now only about the difficulty in getting jurors to understand and apply such a term in deciding the outcome of my client’s case. And, because I am, yes, a lawyer, by “understand” I mean to know and use the term in a way that guarantees a verdict in my client’s favor.†

Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, have dealt with precisely this challenge in their popular book, Rules of the Road. Of course they describe the problem far better than I do:

“For the jury, we need to define ‘reasonably prudent doctor’ and ‘reasonable basis’  . . . and all other ‘reasonables’ . . . too. We cannot let jurors make up their own definitions.” (p.15)*

But, without guidance, we know jurors will absolutely make up their own definitions. And, as Messrs. Friedman and Malone point out, they’re not likely to get this guidance from the judge or other jury instructions. It’s up to the trial lawyers to teach the jury about the meaning of reasonableness, so they’re prepared to apply the otherwise nebulous standard to the evidence of the case.

How to do this? As you can imagine from a book subtitled, “A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability,” their methodology is presented 100% from the plaintiff’s perspective. But that doesn’t dilute the quality of their solution to the problem for a lawyer representing either a plaintiff or a defendant. Essentially, the lawyer formulates a set of “rules of the road” which are guiding principles for the conduct of a reasonable actor (i.e., doctor, insurance company, driver). By developing these “rules,” and then establishing that the defendant did not do some or all of them, it becomes possible to educate and persuade the jury to find in the plaintiff’s favor on the ultimate question whether the defendant was unreasonable and, thus, liable.

As the authors point out, the “rules of the road” for a particular case can derive from several sources, including statutes, case-law, textbooks, industry standards, articles, expert opinion and contract provisions. The most comprehensive example given in the book of a set of “rules of the road” involves the standards and principles an insurance company should adhere to when handling a claim. Here are some they list:

“4. Company must conduct a full, fair, and prompt investigation of the claim at its own expense.

5. Company must fully, fairly, and promptly evaluate and adjust the claim.

* * *

7. Company may not deny a claim or any part of a claim based upon insufficient information, speculation or biased information.

* * *

11. Company must give claimant written update on status of claim every thirty days, including a description of what is needed to finalize the claim.” (pp.16-17)

During opening statement and expert testimony, the jury learns that these principles are valid and accepted standards for an insurance company to follow when handling a claim presented by an insured. The evidence is then framed so that it is easy for jurors to see how the standards were not met. (Conversely, for the defendant, that the standard was met.) If, for example, a claims adjuster is not prompt in evaluating a claim, and does not provide regularly written updates on the status of the claim, he has violated two of the “rules of the road” for insurance claims handling. If the evidence establishes the insurer did not have sufficient information on which to base its denial of coverage, there’s another rule broken.

In closing argument, in discussing the ultimate question, i.e., whether the insurance carrier was reasonable in its handling of the plaintiff’s claim, it becomes much easier to educate the jury how, given the accepted claims handling standards they’ve heard so much about, the carrier was most certainly not reasonable and a verdict in plaintiff’s favor against the company is appropriate.

I recognize this is unfairly reductive. It is not reasonable or even possible in a 900 word blog post to do justice to a 300+ page book. But this is the goal of the book, providing a framework for trial lawyers to break down complex or undefined terms, like “reasonable” into concepts that readily guide a trier of fact into returning a favorable verdict. I plan to do a follow-up post in the future which discusses the authors’ criteria for developing “rules of the road” which apply to a particular defendant or case. Until then, stay in your lane!

†Yes, I do know there are no guarantees.

*All citations are to the second edition.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

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