Oregon Civil Litigation: Jury Instructions

Many years ago, I watched a mature judge take some time to talk to the jury before reading the jury instructions. He started out by explaining that the jury instructions are basically a restatement of the law. The jury had just sat through a two day trial, and heard a lot of evidence. Now the judge would instruct the jury on the law, and ask the jury to take the facts and apply the facts to the law to render a verdict.

He explained to the jury that lawyers had argued for years over what the law should say, and how it should work.  As a result of these long and complicated arguments, appeal courts, made up of three or more judges, made decisions, that these decisions were sometimes appealed again, and changed. However, the judge explained, what the court was asking these jurors to do right now, was to apply a set of facts to legal concepts that took decades to develop, and to do it within a matter of a few hours, or a day.  He then began to read the instructions, which took almost an hour.

Although that seems overwhelming, the fact is that most jury instructions are straight forward.  It's also guaranteed that the attorneys in the case are going to discuss the instructions before trial, and even in closing argument.  The Oregon State Bar regulalary reviews and revises jury instructions so that they are up to date, and understandable.  It is, however, a challenge, at times.

Jury instructions often help attorneys flesh out their closing arguments. For example, a common jury instruction in a civil case is the definition of "preponderance of the evidence." Many people are familiar with the term "beyond a reasonable doubt." Both of these terms refer to how strongly a party must prove their case.

In a criminal matter, a conviction requires proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." This burden of proof requires a higher level of certainty, mainly because somebody's liberty is at stake.

In a civil case, however, the standard of preponderance is not as rigorous. The party with the burden of proof simply needs to prove that a fact is more likely true than not. In terms of percentages, probability means more than 50% certainty that a fact is true. Many attorneys will be sure that jurors understand the difference between these two burdens of proof, and which one should be applied in a particular case.

Each attorney is allowed to propose jury instructions, but in the end, it is up to the Judge to decide which instruction to give.  Often, attorneys will agree to the most basic instructions, but not always.

If you have a injury claim, and wonder about the prospects of going to trial, call us at 503-325-8600. We have taken several cases to jury trial, and can explain how the process works.