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What does a Jury Verdict Slip Look Like in a Case Involving Negligence?

People are surprised to learn that in personal injury cases the jury is given a special verdict form. The first two questions in that document must be answered “yes” if the person suing is to recover. Those questions are:               

  • Was the defendant negligent?
  • Was the defendant’s negligence a substantial contributing cause in producing the plaintiff’s injury? [There might be slight variations of this questions.]

If the answer to either question is “no”, then the jury is deemed to have reached its verdict. All that remains is for the foreperson to sign the bottom of the verdict slip and to notify the court officer that the jury has finished with its job.

The first question pertains to negligence, often described by me to clients as fault or a failure to meet the legal responsibility of the defendant. The second question pertains to proximate cause, often referred to as causation. Causation is tricky. The language of “substantial contributing cause” is far preferable from our clients’ point of view than language seen years ago requiring the negligence to be “the cause”. Regardless of the way proximate cause is phrased by the judge, the answer must be “yes” or the case is lost. In other words, if the jury does not find causation, they are finding that the harm was not brought about by the negligence. (They do not get to causation unless they have answered question 1 on negligence in the affirmative.) This is the element that most surprises clients and I certainly can understand that.

What else in the verdict slip is of interest to, or should be known, by clients? At the bottom of the jury slip the foreperson certifies that the answers constitute the answers of at least five/six of the deliberating jury. Thus, unanimity is not required as it is in a criminal case. Instead, the plaintiff must prove each element to the satisfaction of ten of twelve jurors, not an easy proposition, but far better than having to prove it to twelve out of twelve.

After questions one and two are answered favorably, there are questions pertaining to comparative negligence. Judges will instruct jurors that a finding of 51% or more of negligence on the plaintiff’s part will leave the plaintiff with no recovery. If the questions are answered in a favorable way to the plaintiff– negligence, proximate cause, and comparative negligence, if any, 50% or under– then the jury determines damages “in an amount that would fairly and reasonably compensate” the plaintiff. As you can see, a lot goes into the findings of a jury verdict. Fortunately, jurors take their responsibility very seriously.

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