On Thursday the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded a $2.6 million judgment in Miss. Valley Silica Co. v. Eastman in a 6–3 decision. Here is the Court’s opinion.
The Court’s decision stemmed from a 2010 silica trial in Warren County that resulted in a $7.6 million jury verdict. The trial court reduced the verdict to $2.6 million by reducing non-economic damages to $1 million and eliminating punitive damages due to the defendant’s insolvency. Therefore, press reports that the Court’s reversal was of a $7.6 million verdict were not entirely correct.
The Court reversed due to the trial court’s failure to reform a jury instruction submitted by the defense. The defendant submitted an instruction that was an incorrect statement of law. The trial court refused the instruction rather than re-write it to correctly state the law on a sophisticated-user/ learned-intermediary defense.
Justice Dickinson’s majority opinion states:
“…where the point of law is a central issue not covered elsewhere in the instructions, the ultimate responsibility to instruct the jury properly fall squarely upon the trial judge, who has the responsibility either to reform and correct the proffered instruction himself or to advise counsel on the record of the perceived deficiencies therein and to afford counsel a reasonable opportunity to prepare a new corrected instruction.”
Justice Chandler’s dissent argued that defendant’s failure to tender a proper jury instruction is fatal to its argument.
The dissent also argued that:
“the rule announced by the majority today will place an enormous burden upon trial judges in this state…..The majority finds that MVS’ submission of its incorrect jury instruction triggered a duty for the trial court to reform the instruction. The majority holds that, because MVS did not identify the correct law, the trial court should have researched the issue, crafted a jury instruction with the correct language, and tendered it to MVS for approval. Such a process will be unduly burdensome for a trial judge in the midst of a lengthy civil trial.”
It’s tragic that a case that cost a ton of money to try has to be re-tried due to a mistake with the jury instructions. My focus is not on the Court’s decision, but the process that leads to so many reversals due to jury instruction issues. There is much room for improvement in the process.
I agree with the majority that the trial judge is responsible for properly instructing the jury. Instructing the jury on the law is and should be the court’s responsibility. Just because the parties submit proposed jury instructions should not shift that burden from the trial judge.
If you are sitting in a jury who does it look like is responsible for the jury instructions? The judge who is reading them to you. That perception should be the reality.
The problem is not the majority’s rule. The problem is how trial judges approach jury instructions. Trial judges should start thinking about jury instructions before both sides rest. Otherwise, it is a system that fosters error in an otherwise clean trial.
At the end of a lengthy trial everyone is exhausted and in a hurry to get to the verdict. But this is when almost all state court judges first look at the jury instructions. This system offers judges too little time to think about the law and make a sound decision about the correctness of an instruction. Is it any wonder that mistakes are made? There has to be a better way.
Almost a year ago to the day, I advocated in this post that Mississippi should enact jury reforms modeled on reforms in Michigan. The reforms included:
1. before evidence is presented the trial judge shall provide the jury with pretrial instructions including on the law applicable to the case.
2. the court shall provide each juror with a copy of the instructions.
Back in the 1800’s, there might not have been time to craft jury instructions before they needed to be read at the end of a trial. That’s not the case today.
The best time to start working on jury instructions is now. Attorneys need to draft their jury instructions early in discovery to help them focus on the issues in the case.
Trial judges need to require parties to submit their proposed instructions and conduct the initial instruction conference before trial. This would give judges sufficient time to work through issues surrounding poorly drafted instructions. It would also help focus judges on the issues in the case and lead to better evidentiary rulings in trials.
Changing the system for jury instructions would decrease the number of cases that are reversed due to jury instruction issues and lead to more reasoned verdicts.