Beware Jury Instructions (or At Least, Pay Attention to Them)

I have a really long list of really important things that no one taught me in law school. One lesson that always finds itself at or near the top is this: PAY ATTENTION TO JURY INSTRUCTIONS. The smallest error or inconsistency can provide the basis for an appeal, or in some cases an entirely new trial. Never mind whether the jury actually listens to them or not.

Jury instructions served as the basis for appeal in Kokins v. Teleflex, Inc., 621 F.3d 1290 (10th Cir. 2010) (PDF). This suit arose out of an accident involving a city park ranger, who was thrown from a boat after the boat’s steering cable snapped and sustained a permanent injury to her ankle. She sued the manufacturer of the steering cable, alleging that it was defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous. During discovery, the parties determined and agreed that the reason the cable snapped was because water had somehow entered the core of the cable and caused it to rust. The parties could not agree on how the water got there. The plaintiff alleged that the cable was defectively designed and that a simple fix to the design could have prevented the water from entering into the cable’s core. Teleflex, however, provided evidence at trial that the cable was improperly installed, and had not undergone routine maintenance.

The jury entered a verdict for Teleflex, and the plaintiff appealed, taking issue with two aspects of the jury charges. First, as the Court points out:

Colorado law provides two different tests. Under the “consumer expectation” test, the jury is instructed to find defectiveness if the plaintiff proves that a product is dangerous “to an extent beyond that which would be contemplated by the ordinary consumer who purchases it.” Under the “risk-benefit” test, the jury is instructed to conclude that a product is unreasonably dangerous if the plaintiff proves that the risks of a challenged design outweigh its benefits. Appellants submitted instructions proposing that the district court instruct the jury under both tests, but the district court gave only the risk-benefit instruction.

The second dispute focused on Colorado Revised Statute 13-21-403(2), which creates a presumption that a product is not defective once it has been on the market for ten years. Over the plaintiff’s objection that the statute was procedural, not substantive, the Court instructed the jury on the statute.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the verdict for Teleflex. First, it held that there was no error by the trial court in providing only the “risk-benefit” test to the jury because the case involved primarily technical and scientific information, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the jury should also have been instructed on the consumer expectation test because “rust is not rocket science.”

Second, the Court held that the trial court did not err by instructing the jury about the statutory presumption, because the presumption was substantive, rather than procedural, state law.

Although the plaintiff ultimately failed to persuade the Tenth Circuit to reverse the trial court, she successfully convinced the appellate court to consider her arguments, solely on the basis of jury instructions. It’s a good lesson to learn and, as I pointed out, not one you’ll necessarily learn sitting in the typical law school class.

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