Just as you should never leave for a trip without a map (or more likely these days, a good GPS), you should never begin preparing a case for a jury without looking at the jury instructions for the claims and defenses pleaded. Jury instructions set forth the elements of a cause of action or a defense that a party must prove in order to succeed at trial. Although they are rooted in statutory and case law, jury instructions are often a simple recitation of the issues to be proven at trial. This makes sense, considering that the purpose of the instructions is to explain the applicable law of the case to the jury, which is most often comprised of non-lawyers.
In California, model jury instructions are promulgated by an advisory committee of the Judicial Council of California, a collection of state court judges – including the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court – attorneys, members of the California Legislature, and administrative staff of the courts. Because these instructions have been researched and vetted by a council of lawyers and judges, trial court judges are often reluctant to stray from them. This is not to say that you should not offer alternative instructions or suggested changes in the model language to fit the particular needs of your case. Indeed, you will waive your opportunity to argue on appeal that the jury should have been instructed differently if you fail to offer an instruction at the time of trial.
Jury instructions should inform your case strategy. Civil discovery, which is perhaps the largest portion of case preparation, should be tailored to seek information relating to proving or refuting the claims or defenses. The Discovery Act permits discovery of any non-privileged information “that is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action” and that is “itself admissible in evidence or is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 2017.010. Given the broad scope of permissible discovery, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose for which you are seeking the information. Using the applicable jury instructions as your guide will help you focus on what is really important to your case. Consider how the witnesses you depose, the documents you request and produce, and the interrogatories you propound establish evidence to support the elements of your claims or defenses. When responding to written discovery, review the applicable jury instruction to ensure that your responses track the necessary language of the instructions to support your position because a particular turn of phrase in a verified discovery response may mean the difference between victory and defeat at trial.
Jury instructions are also crucial in motion practice. Motions for summary judgment or summary adjudication before trial and motions for nonsuit during trial all depend on whether the nonmoving party has presented evidence to support its claims or defenses. Jury instructions are the clearest expression of those elements, and should be consulted when making or defending such motions. As trial approaches, motions in limine are an effective tool to preclude the admission of evidence that is not relevant to the issues to be presented at trial. Knowing what is required to be proven at trial pursuant to the jury instructions will help you craft arguments to keep out extraneous information that is not relevant to the elements of a claim or defense and may be prejudicial to your case.
Whether you are a plaintiff asking the jury to find in your favor or a defendant seeking to prevent a large verdict against you, reviewing, understanding, and referring to the applicable jury instructions early and often as you prepare your case will help you create a roadmap for your case and stay on course as you progress through discovery, motion practice, and trial.