I’ve previously written here about the Reptile litigation strategy, and here about how to prepare a witness for a Reptile deposition. In this post, I want to explore how to challenge the Reptile strategy using legal principles. Credit for explaining these strategies goes to Columbia, South Carolina lawyer David Marshall, who wrote about the Reptile strategy in the April, 2013 issue of For the Defense.
According to Marshall, “Every jurisdiction recognizes some version of the golden rule, which disallows any argument asking jurors to put themselves in the shoes of a party.” Id. at 68. The prohibition is premised on a view that such arguments are designed to destroy juror impartiality and encourage jurors to decide a case based on personal interest and bias.
Marshall refers to Reptile as a “veiled” golden rule argument “because it seeks to have jurors decide a case not on the actual damages sustained by the plaintiff but rather on the potential harms and losses that could have occurred within the community, which includes each juror and his or her family members.” Id.
Marshall also points out that an outsized punitive damage verdict that results from jurors punishing a defendant for potential infliction of hypothetical damages, beyond what the plaintiff actually suffered, is vulnerable on due process grounds. The Reptile strategy attempts to appeal to survival instincts and a juror’s innate urge to protect her community. Marshall writes that “the Due Process Clause specifically prohibits punitive damage awards based on potential injuries that could have been inflicted on other members of the community.” Id. (emphasis in original).
Another avenue Marshall discusses involves the prohibition, in most jurisdictions, of “other similar incidents” evidence. Again, the Reptile is concerned, not only with what did occur in the case at hand, but what hypothetically could have occurred based on the defendant’s blameworthy safety practices. There is little difference, in terms of evidentiary value and risk of prejudice, between an “other similar incident” and a hypothetical similar incident that could have occurred (but fortuitously didn’t).
Marshall points also to an argument available in certain jurisdictions barring a lawyer in closing argument from urging the jury to “send a message” to the defendant, or to “act as the conscience of the community.” Id. at 74. Since this is exactly what the Reptile strategy is based on, there may be a basis for exclusion/preclusion of Reptile tactics on this basis, as well.
Finally, Marshall suggests that, if efforts to exclude or limit Reptilian trial tactics are unsuccessful, it may be possible to dilute the effectiveness of the Reptile strategy by explaining it to the jury. Marshall suggests it may even be appropriate to “compliment the plaintiff’s attorney in . . . closing and praise his or her ability and zeal” (Id.), using this as an opportunity to explain the psychology of the Reptile strategy and why they should not get too carried away by it.
See, there’s more than one way to skin a . . . er . . . lizard.