What are jury instructions?

Courts in both civil and criminal trials use jury instructions, which are written statements explaining the jury‘s role and the particular laws that apply to the specific case.  Jury instructions are designed to give jurors a framework for understanding how the law applies to the evidence they have heard during trial, so they can return a consistent verdict.

Most state and federal courts have pre-printed or “pattern” jury instructions covering the major laws that affect cases heard in that court.  In some courts, judges are required to read the pattern jury instructions out loud to the jury.  In other courts or in particular cases, the judge may be allowed to use jury instructions that are prepared by the parties in each case, instead of or along with the pattern instructions.

Jury instructions are usually read at two different points in a civil trial.  The first set is read after the jury has been seated, but before opening statements are given.  These instructions are typically known as preliminary instructions. They provide information on the role of the jury and how the jury should deal with certain events in the courtroom.

For instance, preliminary instructions may explain that opening statements and closing statements are not evidence and that, therefore, the jurors should not base their verdict on what the parties or their attorneys say during opening or closing statements.  Another common preliminary instruction explains that, when the judge rules on an objection, the jurors should not assume that the judge is signaling support or opposition of any of the parties based on how the judge rules.

The second place in a trial where jury instructions are read is after the parties have given their closing statements, but before the jury goes back to the jury room to discuss its verdict.  These instructions are typically what is meant when the phrase “jury instructions” is used.

Before final jury instructions are read, the judge may call a recess.  This recess, which is typically short, gives the judge and the parties or their attorneys the chance to discuss which final jury instructions should be read.  If the court rules allow the parties to submit their own versions of jury instructions, the judge may also consider these versions at this time and discuss any necessary changes with the parties and their attorneys.

Jury instructions after closing statements are usually much more complex and detailed than preliminary instructions.  They are also more likely to be tailored to the particular issues raised during the trial.  For instance, in a personal injury case involving a defective product, the final jury instructions will include information on both personal injury law and products liability law, as well as an explanation of the general negligence standard that may apply to both personal injury and products liability cases.

In this way, final jury instructions differ from preliminary instructions because final instructions are tailored to each trial, while preliminary instructions apply to the job jurors have in all trials.

The more complex a case becomes, the more jury instructions may be necessary.  For instance, cases that involve comparative negligence will include jury instructions on this area of law, as well as on the law of negligence and any other particulars that affect the case.  It’s not unusual, then, for jurors to become confused in complicated cases with many different jury instructions.  In courts where the rules allow, jurors may be allowed to take notes in order to keep track, or to take a copy of the instructions into the jury room with them.  They may also be allowed to use a verdict form to keep them “on track” with the instructions as they work out their verdict.

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