A couple of posts back, I tried to address the difficulty of getting jurors to apply commonly used, but inherently ambiguous, legal terms and principles, such as “reasonable” to the facts of a particular case. For example, when the jury is instructed that a defendant is liable if he/she/it acted “unreasonably” under a set of circumstances, what are jurors supposed to do with that term?
A solution proposed by Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, in their popular book, Rules of the Road: A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability,† involved developing a set of rules or principles or standards which, when applied to the evidence of what occurred in the case, yield the conclusion that the defendant did not act reasonably (or indeed acted reasonably, depending on whether you represent the plaintiff or the defendant). In that post, I promised to follow up with some guidelines, or rules of the rules of the road. Here we go.
Rule No. 1: A rule of the road should be a requirement that the defendant do, or not do something. (22) The authors describe the basic structure as follows:
“A [type of defendant] should (or should not . . .) do [fill in relevant conduct sought to be enforced by plaintiff].” (23)
Here’s an example: “A surgeon should carefully identify what it is he/she is supposed to be cutting before commencing surgery.” Or, “An insurance claims examiner should fully, fairly and promptly evaluate and adjust a claim for coverage.”
Rule No. 2: A rule of the road should be easy for the jury to understand. (22) After all, the whole point of having rules of the road is to aid the jury in understanding an already ambiguous word or concept in a way that is favorable to your client. To illustrate this point, the authors suggest that, in the context of a physician’s alleged failure to diagnose a disease, a rule of the road can be gleaned from an internal-medicine textbook. However, the language from the textbook may be unnecessarily arcane, and a principle that jurors can easily understand may need to be refined into more accessible wording. (I realize my own wording is often inaccessible and arcane and my blog posts should probably be re-written to be easier for readers to understand. Blame all those philosophy books I read in college.)
Rule No. 3: A rule of the road should be a requirement that the defendant (or, if your client is the defendant, then the plaintiff) cannot credibly dispute. (22) Your opponent may not easily buy into the rule but, as the authors point out, “[d]isagreeing with the Rule should hurt the defense as much as or more than agreeing with it. If a doctor endorses a text as authoritative . . . he is going to look bad disagreeing with a simple, straightforward principle stated in that text.” (25-26)
Rule No. 4: A rule of the road should be a requirement the defendant has violated (or, if you represent the defendant, one he has not violated). (22) Otherwise, why would that principle or standard matter?
Rule No. 5: A rule of the road should be important enough in the context of the case that proof of its violation will significantly increase the chance of a favorable verdict. (22) “This is not like issue-spotting in law school. Your case does not get better in proportion to the number of Rules you add to your list.” (30)
The Rules of the Road approach offers a strategy to bridge the chasm that inevitably exists between broad, ambiguous legal terms and principles and the concrete evidence received by the jury during trial. As the authors note, “[w]e cannot let jurors make up their own definitions.” (15) And you certainly shouldn’t let your opponent do the defining. Developing a set of rules that adheres to the requirements above should help you avoid getting broadsided at trial.
†Citations are to the second edition.