The Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that a plaintiff was not entitled to several hundred thousand dollars that the jury allegedly thought it was awarding (but didn’t). According to a juror’s affidavit, the group became confused during the deliberation process and accidentally lowered the dollar figure. In addition to being bewildered by the jury instructions and verdict form questions, the jury had to request multiplication help from the judge in open court. As a result, they actually awarded $128,172, instead of the $464,472 that was claimed to be the intended award.
Some might view this as another opportunity to slam the intelligence of juries or make a wisecrack about those who are not smart enough to get off jury duty. After all, who could possibly misunderstand something as simple as a verdict form?
However, those of us non-attorneys who actually see verdict forms might have a different response. Jury instructions and verdict forms are written by experts in law that are fluent in legalese. Often, attorneys will battle over small wording changes that are vital to the legal arguments, but far above a typical juror’s head.
This is not to suggest that the jurors are stupid. I’m sure that a juror who works in nuclear science or car mechanics would be able to write instructions that would easily perplex the average attorney. The issue is experience, not intelligence.
Much like speaking a second language, it is easy to take the meanings of words and phrases for granted. Litigators can attest that even something as simple as the burden of proof can often be confused by jurors.
There are no statistics that accurately convey how frequently juries come to verdicts based on misunderstandings of the verdict form or instructions, but anecdotal mock trial evidence would suggest a much higher rate than anyone would be comfortable with. The question is: What can be done to help?
The answer is to start working on the verdict form early. As this article points out, attorneys often focus on the jury selection with great intensity and leave the verdict form as a loose end to be tied. Great thought must be put into the verdict form, but this is not strictly about legal strategy. It is also about simplicity.
Much like speaking to a Spanish 101 student, time and explanation are vital. Try to use as many basic words as possible. When big words are required, be sure to explain the meanings with little words that the student already knows. Most importantly, don’t add complexity where it is unnecessary. The result will only be frustration and eventual exhaustion.
Blogger: Matt McCusker