Vermont Civil Jury Instruction Committee

Plain English Jury Instructions

General Jury Instructions

 

Table of Contents

A.        General Jury Instruction Template

B.         Jury Charge Introduction: Role of Judge and Jury/Evidence

C.        Deliberations

D.        Inferences from the Evidence

E.         Direct and Circumstantial Evidence

F.         Credibility of Witnesses

G.        Expert Witnesses

H.        Burden of Proof/Preponderance of the Evidence

 

 

A.      General Jury Instruction Template

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

Now that you have heard all of the evidence, and the arguments of counsel, it becomes my duty to give you the instructions of the court concerning the law which governs this case.

It is your duty as jurors to follow the law as I shall state it to you, and to apply that law to the facts as you find them from the evidence presented in court.  You are not to single out one instruction alone as stating the law, but must consider the instructions as a whole.  Neither are you to be concerned with the wisdom of any rule of law stated by me.  Regardless of any opinion you may have as to what the law is or ought to be, it would be a violation of your sworn duty to base a verdict upon any view of the law other than that given in the instructions of the court, just as it would also be a violation of your sworn duty, as judges of the facts, to base a verdict upon anything other than the evidence presented during the trial.

In deciding the facts of this case, you must not be swayed by bias or favor as to any party.  All parties should be treated as equals, whether actual persons or corporations no longer in business.  Our system of law does not permit jurors to be governed by prejudice or sympathy or public opinion.  Both the parties and the public expect that you will carefully and impartially consider all of the evidence in the case, follow the law as stated by me in these instructions, and reach a just verdict regardless of the consequences. 

It is your duty to determine the facts, and in so doing you must consider only the evidence I have admitted in the case.  The term “evidence” includes the sworn testimony of the witnesses, and the exhibits admitted by the court during the trial.  Those exhibits will be provided to you for your review when you retire to deliberate.  Remember that any statements, questions, objections or arguments made by the lawyers are not evidence in the case.

While you should consider only the evidence in the case, you are permitted to draw such reasonable inferences from the testimony and exhibits as you feel are justified in the light of common experience.  In other words, you may make deductions and reach conclusions, which reason and common sense lead you to draw from the facts which have been established by the testimony and evidence in the case.  But do not speculate about possibilities that were not fairly proved.

Now, I have said that you must consider all of the evidence.  This does not mean, however, that you must accept all of the evidence as true or accurate.  You are the sole judges of the credibility or “believability” of each witness, and the weight to be given to any testimony.  In weighing the testimony of a witness you should consider

·           relationship to the Plaintiff or to the Defendant;

·           interest, if any, in the outcome of the case,

·           manner of testifying;

·           opportunity to observe or acquire knowledge concerning the facts about which the witness testified;

·           candor, fairness and intelligence; and

·           the extent to which testimony has been supported or contradicted by other credible evidence. 

You may, in short, accept or reject the testimony of any witness in whole or in part. 

 

Some witnesses are permitted to give opinions, because of specialized training, education or experience.  For any such witness, you must also weigh the reliability of any testimony or opinions.  Consider whether the witness has enough training or experience to form the opinion in question; whether the facts necessary to support the opinion have actually been proved; whether another opinion is better supported or better fits the facts which you conclude are proved.

A witness may be discredited or “impeached” by contradictory evidence, by a showing that he testified falsely concerning a material matter, or by evidence that at some time the witness has said or done something, or has failed to say or do something, which is inconsistent with the witness' present testimony in court.  If you believe that any witness has been so impeached, then it is your exclusive province to give the testimony of that witness such credibility or weight, if any, as you may think it deserves.

The party asserting a claim has the burden to prove that claim; to satisfy the legal requirements I will soon lay out.  To satisfy this burden, he or she must persuade you that each of the legal requirements probably occurred.  Probably means “more likely than not,” it means 51% likely to have occurred; it does not require proof to a certainty.  It is not every fact which may have been discussed which must be proved to a probability, but the legal requirements which must be so proved.

 

B.      Jury Charge Introduction: Role of Judge and Jury/Evidence

Your job is to decide the facts based on the evidence that you heard and saw during the trial. The evidence includes the testimony of the witnesses and the exhibits that I admitted.  You will be given the exhibits in the jury room. In deciding the facts, you must not be swayed by sympathy or prejudice towards any of the parties.  My job is to give you the law. After you decide the facts, you need to apply the law that I give you, even if you do not agree with it.

Remember that statements, objections, or arguments made by the lawyers are not evidence in the case. The lawyers' job is to point out those things that are most significant or most helpful to their side of the case. You also should not assume from any statements that I may have made that I have any opinion about how you should decide this case.

NOTES: The traditional instruction on ignoring evidence that was stricken from the record was purposefully omitted from these general instructions. Counsel can determine on a case-by-case basis whether they wish to seek such an instruction.

 

C.      Deliberations

When I complete these instructions, the jury will go to the Jury Room to begin deciding the case.  We call that process “deliberations.”  That is an interesting word, because it suggests two important things.  A group of people deliberate an issue when they sit around and discuss it.  To act deliberately is to act carefully, not rushing.  In a sense, those two concepts are all you need to know.

Sit around the table; discuss the evidence at trial; see how it stacks up with the legal standards I have just described.  Everyone should have a chance to speak.  Be willing to take a fresh look at your own ideas, your own point of view.  You may decide to change that point of view, if you conclude that another one makes better sense, better fits that proved facts and the law.  But do not just walk away from your individual point of view, if you remain convinced it is the correct one, according to the evidence and these instructions of law.  In discussing the evidence, and how it compares to the law, you should not consider yourselves as partisans, fighting for one or another point of view.  Instead, you should think of yourselves as judges, judges of the facts.  Your sole interest should be to reach the truth.

To return a verdict, the jury must come to a unanimous conclusion–each juror must agree to it.  When you have reached that conclusion, you will fill out the Verdict Form and have the foreman sign it.  Then place it in the envelope and advise the court officer that you have reached a verdict.  The verdict will be read in open court.  The court appoints _________________ as foreperson, to preside over your deliberations and be your spokesman here in court.

If you have any questions, write them out on paper, have the foreman or someone else sign it, and pass it to the court officer.  I will promptly respond, probably in writing, but I may have you brought back to the courtroom, and speak to you like this.  If you send a note, however, do not tell me what the vote is on any issue.

 

D.      Inferences from the Evidence

In considering the evidence, you are not limited to what the witnesses said.  You may draw reasonable conclusions from the testimony and exhibits based on common sense and experience.  However, you may not guess about testimony or exhibits that I did not admit into evidence might have shown.

 

E.      Direct and Circumstantial Evidence

There are two kinds of evidence: Direct and circumstantial.  Direct evidence is testimony by a witness about what a witness personally saw or heard or did.  Circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence, that is, proof of one or more facts from which one can find another fact.

You may consider both direct and circumstantial evidence in deciding this case.  The law permits you to give equal weight to both, but it is for you to decide how much weight to give to any evidence.

 

F.      Credibility of Witnesses

You must consider all of the evidence.  This does not mean that you must believe all of the evidence. It is up to you, and only you, to decide whether the testimony of a witness was reliable, as well as how much weight to give the testimony.

The following factors may help you to evaluate the testimony of witnesses:

           did the witness have an interest in the outcome of the case?

           how did the witness behave while testifying?

           did the witness seem candid?

           did the witness seem to have a bias?

           does the other believable evidence in the case fits with the witness’s testimony, or is it inconsistent with it?

           how well could the witness see or hear the facts about which he or she testified?

           did the witness seem to have an accurate memory?

You may believe as much or as little of each witness’s testimony as you think appropriate. Keep in mind that people sometimes forget things, and sometimes they make honest mistakes.  You must decide whether an omission or a mistake is innocent or minor, or whether it is something more serious that affects the rest of their testimony.

 

G.      Expert Witnesses

Some witnesses testify as experts.  This means that they have special knowledge, training, or experience that qualifies them to give an opinion on a certain matter.  You should evaluate the opinion of an expert witness the same way you would consider any other testimony. Then, you should evaluate whether the opinion is based on the facts proved at trial and supported by their knowledge, training, or experience.

 

H.      Burden of Proof/Preponderance of the Evidence

In this case, [identify the party bringing the claim] has the burden of  proving to you each element of [identify the claim] by a preponderance of the evidence.  In other words, do you believe that [describe the claim] is more likely true than not? Think of the test as the 51% Rule. 

Preponderance of the evidence is a matter of quality, not quantity.  The party who has the burden must present the more convincing evidence.  It is not enough to just present the most witnesses.

In light of the evidence and the law, do you believe that [describe the claim] is more likely true than not?  If so, you should decide in favor of [identify the party having the burden of proof].  On the other hand, if the evidence does not meet this standard or tends to be equally balanced, [identify the party having the burden of proof] cannot succeed on his or her claim.