All nine Mississippi Supreme Court Justices agreed last week that the plaintiffs and cross plaintiffs proved fault in their legal malpractice case against mega firm Baker & McKenzie. But the case is headed for a new trial because of errors in how the trial court instructed the jury. This shows why Mississippi courts need to reform their procedures for formulating jury instructions.
I wrote about this topic in this post in May. As I explained in that post, our system for jury instructions is broken and needs to be repaired:
Every state court judge that I’ve tried cases to handles jury instructions the same way. State court procedure for jury instructions is:
- parties file instructions the day before trial;
- the court seats a jury;
- parties try the case;
- everyone ignores instructions until last day of trial;
- parties and judge have a rushed jury instruction conference when everyone is tired and in a hurry;
- in the most boring part of trial, judge instructs the jury on the law for the first time at the close of evidence and just before closing arguments.
This system does not work well and is a major cause of reversals and re-trials.
This is not a hard fix. Jury instructions need to be filed well before the trial and an initial jury instruction conference also needs to be conducted before trial. Courts could do it at the common pre-trial conference, which is usually a colossal waste of time.
Judges, parties, lawyers and jurors are spending weeks trying cases that are getting reversed over jury instruction issues that are adjudicated at the absolute worst possible time in a trial to handle such an important and technical issue. The Mississippi Supreme Court needs to take the lead in at least looking at whether this system can be improved.