When a Jury Instruction is Incorrectly Given

Posted Tuesday, December 13, 2016 by Ed Harper

Why have Pattern Jury Instructions?

The underlying purpose of the WPI as stated by the Supreme Court of Washington in 1963 in order to assist the bench (judges) and bar (attorneys) in reducing the time and effort which must be expended on the preparation of jury instructions. Justice has been enhanced and the quality of instructions, thus the trying of cases has improved greatly. The Supreme Court encourages the use of these pattern instructions which are an accurate statement of the law. And depending on the circumstances of that case, should be used. Chief Justice Vernon R. Pearson, dated January 1989.

When an error has occurred, and an incorrect instruction of law has been given, the case will overturn on appeal due to the usage of a particular jury instruction. Trial courts must be adept to avoid showing favoritism and seemingly shaping the view of the jury. Jury instructions must state the law which is applicable and be balanced in their view so that each party may argue its theory of the case.

This unpublished case is just such an example. Hopkins v Seattle Schools, No. 73147-5-I, Court of Appeals, Division I of the State of Washington, points out trial courts must get it right or the verdict will be overturned. Briefly, a student of the district, Plaintiff Hopkins was assaulted on school grounds. His attorneys proposed a jury instruction pointing out a special relationship existed (In locus parentis) between the school and a student. “Hopkins argued the undisputed facts showed the School District breached the duty to protect him from foreseeable harm.” Hopkins, citing McLeod v. Grant County, 42 Wn.2d 316, 255 P.2d 360 (1953).

The court declined to provide this instruction, choosing instead to utilize the instruction pertaining to the understanding/assumption that others will exercise ordinary care (see WPI 12.07). The Court of Appeals however, determined it was unfair and prejudicial to not provide “special relationship instruction” for the Defendant School District enhanced duty of care owed to the plaintiff.

Washington Pattern Instruction (WPI) 12.07 states the following: “Every person has the right to assume that others will exercise ordinary care [and comply with the law], and a person has a right to proceed on such assumption until he or she knows, or in the exercise of ordinary care should know, to the contrary.”

The court articulated as follows: “The propriety of giving a jury instruction is governed by facts of the case.” Fergen v Sestero, 182 Wn.2d 794, 802. Thus, the jury was never apprised of the law pertinent to the School District’s special relationship and heightened duty of care. Because the instructions given allowed the jury to apply an ordinary negligence standard without regard to the special relationship and duty of the School District, the error was not harmless and prevented Hopkins from arguing his theory of the case.

So in summation, by giving only an “ordinary care” instruction to the jury, the decision maker was deprived of the legal precedent requiring the School District to use heightened awareness of the students they were supervising.

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