Five Rules of the Rules of the Road

A couple of posts back, I tried to address the difficulty of getting jurors to apply commonly used, but inherently ambiguous, legal terms and principles, such as “reasonable” to the facts of a particular case. For example, when the jury is instructed that a defendant is liable if he/she/it acted “unreasonably” under a set of circumstances, what are jurors supposed to do with that term?

A solution proposed by Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, in their popular book, Rules of the Road: A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability,† involved developing a set of rules or principles or standards which, when applied to the evidence of what occurred in the case, yield the conclusion that the defendant did not act reasonably (or indeed acted reasonably, depending on whether you represent the plaintiff or the defendant). In that post, I promised to follow up with some guidelines, or rules of the rules of the road. Here we go.

Rule No. 1: A rule of the road should be a requirement that the defendant do, or not do something. (22) The authors describe the basic structure as follows:

“A [type of defendant] should (or should not . . .) do [fill in relevant conduct sought to be enforced by plaintiff].” (23)

Here’s an example: “A surgeon should carefully identify what it is he/she is supposed to be cutting before commencing surgery.” Or, “An insurance claims examiner should fully, fairly and promptly evaluate and adjust a claim for coverage.”

Rule No. 2: A rule of the road should be easy for the jury to understand. (22) After all, the whole point of having rules of the road is to aid the jury in understanding an already ambiguous word or concept in a way that is favorable to your client. To illustrate this point, the authors suggest that, in the context of a physician’s alleged failure to diagnose a disease, a rule of the road can be gleaned from an internal-medicine textbook. However, the language from the textbook may be unnecessarily arcane, and a principle that jurors can easily understand may need to be refined into more accessible wording. (I realize my own wording is often inaccessible and arcane and my blog posts should probably be re-written to be easier for readers to understand. Blame all those philosophy books I read in college.)

Rule No. 3: A rule of the road should be a requirement that the defendant (or, if your client is the defendant, then the plaintiff) cannot credibly dispute. (22) Your opponent may not easily buy into the rule but, as the authors point out, “[d]isagreeing with the Rule should hurt the defense as much as or more than agreeing with it. If a doctor endorses a text as authoritative . . . he is going to look bad disagreeing with a simple, straightforward principle stated in that text.” (25-26)

Rule No. 4: A rule of the road should be a requirement the defendant has violated (or, if you represent the defendant, one he has not violated). (22) Otherwise, why would that principle or standard matter?

Rule No. 5: A rule of the road should be important enough in the context of the case that proof of its violation will significantly increase the chance of a favorable verdict. (22) “This is not like issue-spotting in law school. Your case does not get better in proportion to the number of Rules you add to your list.” (30)

The Rules of the Road approach offers a strategy to bridge the chasm that inevitably exists between broad, ambiguous legal terms and principles and the concrete evidence received by the jury during trial. As the authors note, “[w]e cannot let jurors make up their own definitions.” (15) And you certainly shouldn’t let your opponent do the defining. Developing a set of rules that adheres to the requirements above should help you avoid getting broadsided at trial.

†Citations are to the second edition.

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Defining Unreasonably Indefinite Words, Like “Reasonable”

One of my great pleasures in raising my daughter is watching her encounter and struggle to make sense of the inherent ambiguities of our language. Puns are a particular favorite. She first learns to draw a picture. Then her mother suggests she’s going to draw her a bath. She gets into bed and draws up the covers. We have yet to draw a conclusion, but that’s coming. Whenever we encounter a word with multiple meanings, it is a simple matter to draw her attention back (pun intended) to the d-word.

I am not a poet, but I do delight in the elusive, liquid ambiguity inherent in language. Except, that is, when drafting (and hoping a jury will understand and follow) jury instructions. Then the indeterminate nature of our language can become an obstacle. An obstacle to understanding. An obstacle to winning.

A great example occurs when we ask jurors to apply a “reasonableness” standard. Was a driver’s operation of his vehicle reasonable? Did the doctor act reasonably when he did not order a particular diagnostic procedure? Was it reasonable for the insurance carrier to deny coverage based on the information available to it?

Whatever issues scholars raise about the “reasonableness” standard, I’m speaking now only about the difficulty in getting jurors to understand and apply such a term in deciding the outcome of my client’s case. And, because I am, yes, a lawyer, by “understand” I mean to know and use the term in a way that guarantees a verdict in my client’s favor.†

Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, have dealt with precisely this challenge in their popular book, Rules of the Road. Of course they describe the problem far better than I do:

“For the jury, we need to define ‘reasonably prudent doctor’ and ‘reasonable basis’  . . . and all other ‘reasonables’ . . . too. We cannot let jurors make up their own definitions.” (p.15)*

But, without guidance, we know jurors will absolutely make up their own definitions. And, as Messrs. Friedman and Malone point out, they’re not likely to get this guidance from the judge or other jury instructions. It’s up to the trial lawyers to teach the jury about the meaning of reasonableness, so they’re prepared to apply the otherwise nebulous standard to the evidence of the case.

How to do this? As you can imagine from a book subtitled, “A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability,” their methodology is presented 100% from the plaintiff’s perspective. But that doesn’t dilute the quality of their solution to the problem for a lawyer representing either a plaintiff or a defendant. Essentially, the lawyer formulates a set of “rules of the road” which are guiding principles for the conduct of a reasonable actor (i.e., doctor, insurance company, driver). By developing these “rules,” and then establishing that the defendant did not do some or all of them, it becomes possible to educate and persuade the jury to find in the plaintiff’s favor on the ultimate question whether the defendant was unreasonable and, thus, liable.

As the authors point out, the “rules of the road” for a particular case can derive from several sources, including statutes, case-law, textbooks, industry standards, articles, expert opinion and contract provisions. The most comprehensive example given in the book of a set of “rules of the road” involves the standards and principles an insurance company should adhere to when handling a claim. Here are some they list:

“4. Company must conduct a full, fair, and prompt investigation of the claim at its own expense.

5. Company must fully, fairly, and promptly evaluate and adjust the claim.

* * *

7. Company may not deny a claim or any part of a claim based upon insufficient information, speculation or biased information.

* * *

11. Company must give claimant written update on status of claim every thirty days, including a description of what is needed to finalize the claim.” (pp.16-17)

During opening statement and expert testimony, the jury learns that these principles are valid and accepted standards for an insurance company to follow when handling a claim presented by an insured. The evidence is then framed so that it is easy for jurors to see how the standards were not met. (Conversely, for the defendant, that the standard was met.) If, for example, a claims adjuster is not prompt in evaluating a claim, and does not provide regularly written updates on the status of the claim, he has violated two of the “rules of the road” for insurance claims handling. If the evidence establishes the insurer did not have sufficient information on which to base its denial of coverage, there’s another rule broken.

In closing argument, in discussing the ultimate question, i.e., whether the insurance carrier was reasonable in its handling of the plaintiff’s claim, it becomes much easier to educate the jury how, given the accepted claims handling standards they’ve heard so much about, the carrier was most certainly not reasonable and a verdict in plaintiff’s favor against the company is appropriate.

I recognize this is unfairly reductive. It is not reasonable or even possible in a 900 word blog post to do justice to a 300+ page book. But this is the goal of the book, providing a framework for trial lawyers to break down complex or undefined terms, like “reasonable” into concepts that readily guide a trier of fact into returning a favorable verdict. I plan to do a follow-up post in the future which discusses the authors’ criteria for developing “rules of the road” which apply to a particular defendant or case. Until then, stay in your lane!

†Yes, I do know there are no guarantees.

*All citations are to the second edition.

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