Civil Jury Instructions
- Originally published March 21, 2012
This child wrongful death case addresses the impropriety of jury instructions regarding a party’s contentions. In this case, the Plaintiff tendered and the trial court gave an instruction regarding the Plaintiff’s allegations of negligence against the Defendant. The instruction informed the jury that the Plaintiff had the burden of proving three elements by a preponderance of the evidence: negligence, proximate cause, and resulting damages. In instructing the jury that the Defendant had the burden of proving negligence, the Court listed actions the Plaintiff alleged were negligent, including failing to implement or monitor a system for health services, failing to properly train its staff, failing to assemble a first aid team, failing to prepare for a foreseeable medical emergency, and failing to supervise those with the responsibility to provide health services. The Court held this instruction was improper and prejudicial.
Specifically, the Court stated the instruction could be construed to state that these failures automatically constitute negligence if proven by a preponderance of the evidence. However, a school corporation’s duty is to exercise ordinary and reasonable care. The failure to do the things alleged by the Plaintiff could be evidence of failure to exercise reasonable care. However, the acts in the instruction are not independent duties owed by the school. The Court went on to find the error was prejudicial because it left the jury in doubt as to the law on a material issue. Justice Sullivan dissented, concluding that when looking at the instructions as a whole any ambiguity in the improper instruction did not mislead the jury.
This case should provide substantial clarity regarding the propriety of instructing the jury on a party’s contentions. It also provides guidance to appellate practitioners when asserting prejudicial error because of an erroneous instruction. Any party appealing erroneous jury instructions regarding a party’s duty would do well to rely heavily on this case.