For some litigators, jury instructions are more of an afterthought than a central part of trial strategy. But, they can be critical for appeal. Jury instructions tend to be rife with error precisely because trial attorneys and judges do not have the luxury of time to ensure they both accurately state the law and do not become too partial, especially collectively.
The fact is, your jury may have received faulty instructions, which may help you if you are appealing, but could also backfire if you secured a verdict you want to keep. A skilled appellate litigator will understand how jury instructions may have affected your case and how they should be addressed upon appeal.
Why Jury Instructions Matter
At the civil trial, jury instructions can make or break a litigant’s case. How the applicable legal standards are stated, or terms defined, can affect the outcome because they guide the jury to reach their result. When instructions don’t accurately reflect the law, their effect may actually undo or undermine the arguments you made during the trial. This can make your appeal much more difficult if you failed to properly and timely object to the instructions.
The Need to Object to Bad Jury Instructions
As a rule, legally erroneous instructions are presumably objected to by the opposing party. That’s a standard for California courts. However, it’s a good idea for the opposing party to put any objections to those instructions on the record. That’s because the aforementioned rule has limits. It doesn’t apply to technically correct but poorly worded or incomplete instructions. Erring on the safe side with timely objections is a good way to preserve the objection.
Appeals based on bad jury instructions typically happen for one of two reasons. Trial attorneys generally prepare their own instructions, but the court may refuse to give them. On the other hand, the court may select the opponent’s (bad) instructions for the jury. Either way, the objection should timely assert not only which instruction is faulty but also the basis for the objection.
What will an appellate attorney (and court) look for?
In preparing the appeal based on jury instructions, an attorney will want to know what happened at trial. So, too, will the Court of Appeal once it reviews the case. The more information available in the record, the better. Generally, here are some items your appellate lawyer and the court will look for:
- Were complete jury instructions offered? In other words, did the appellant propose a complete set of jury instructions that were ultimately rejected? It’s much more difficult to successfully challenge the trial court’s failure to give instructions that weren’t even proposed.
- When proposing jury instructions, sometimes parties want to craft them in a way that is most helpful to their parties. But the court will evaluate whether the requested instructions were prejudicially argumentative or perhaps, inaccurate. Do not provide your opponent with ammunition to overturn the judgment because you were able to convince the trial court to give your overly favorable instructions.
- Was your objection clear? Did you specify the grounds for your objections? Was your objection made on the record? As mentioned above, by law, some instructions are presumed objected, but you should never rely on presumptions if you have the ability to make a timely, clear objection on the record. This may require you to submit your objections in writing, especially if the proceedings were not transcribed.
Jury Instructions Matter At Trial – And Could Matter During The Appeal
Do you believe an error occurred in the jury instructions? Are you concerned as to whether the error was preserved for appeal? Gusdorff Law is here for you. We understand the role that jury instructions play in California appellate law. And we know what to look for on appeal. Talk to us today about your legal options