The Judge Instructs the Jury
On the morning of June 6, 1996, the jury was ushered into the courtroom just as it had been every other morning for the previous five weeks. Only this morning was different.
On this morning, Judge Donner handed the jurors copies of the jury charge. It was as if she had given them a pop quiz, except they had known it was coming.
The judge began, “Remember back in high school when your teacher said, ‘Don’t turn over your paper until I tell you’? Well, this is one of those papers. I will tell you when to turn it over, and then you will follow along with me.” The judge added, as though she were addressing a classroom instead of a courtroom, “Are we all together here?”
“All right, then,” Judge Donner said. “Members of the jury, turn over your papers and begin reading with me on the second page. I shall now instruct you on the law that you must follow in reaching your verdict. It is your duty as jurors to decide the issues, and only those issues, that I submit for determination by your verdict. In reaching your verdict, you should consider and weigh the evidence, decide the disputed issues of fact, and apply the law on which I shall instruct you to the facts as you find them from the evidence.
“The evidence in this case consists of the sworn testimony of the witnesses, all exhibits received in evidence, and all facts that may be admitted or agreed to by the parties,” the judge said. “In determining the facts, you may draw reasonable inferences from the evidence. You may make deductions and reach conclusions that your common sense leads you to draw from the facts shown by the evidence in this case. But you should not speculate on any matters outside the evidence.
“In determining the believability of any witness and the weight to be given their testimony,” the judge said, “you may properly consider the demeanor of the witness while testifying; the frankness or lack of frankness of the witness; the intelligence of the witness; any interest the witness may have in the outcome of the case; the means and opportunity the witness had to know facts about which the witness testified; the ability of the witness to remember the matters about which the witness testified; and the reasonableness of the testimony of the witness, considered in the light of all the evidence in the case and in the light of your experience and common sense.”
Judge Donner continued, “You may accept opinion testimony on certain technical subjects, reject it, or give it the weight you think it deserves, considering the knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education of the witness; the reasons given by the witness for the opinion expressed; and all the other evidence in the case.
“In your deliberations,” the judge said, “you are to consider several distinct claims.
First, plaintiffs allege that defendant DuPont placed Benlate on the market in an unreasonably dangerous condition. The plaintiffs also allege that defendant DuPont was negligent in the design, testing, and sale of Benlate. Finally, plaintiffs assert that Pine Island Farms was negligent in its use of Benlate. Plaintiffs claim that as a result of the actions of the defendants, plaintiffs suffered damage. Both defendants deny the plaintiffs’ claims. Although these claims have been tied together, each is separate from the others, and each party is entitled to have you consider the evidence as it relates to each claim separately, as if each claim were tried before you separately,” said Judge Donner.
“Now, the plaintiffs have two claims against the defendant DuPont,” the judge said.
“The first issue to consider and determine is whether the Benlate sold by defendant DuPont was defective when it left the possession of DuPont, and if so, whether such defect was a legal cause of loss, injury, or damage sustained by the plaintiffs. A product is defective if by reason of its design the product is in a condition unreasonably dangerous to consumers, users, or bystanders, and the product is expected to and does reach the user without substantial change affecting that condition. A product is unreasonably dangerous because of its design if the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer, user, or bystander would expect when used as intended or in a manner reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer, or the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefits.
“If the greater weight of the evidence does not support this claim of the plaintiffs,” said the judge, “your verdict should be for the defendant DuPont. However, if the greater weight of the evidence does support this claim, then your verdict should be for the plaintiffs.
“The issue on the second claim of the plaintiffs against DuPont is whether DuPont was negligent in the design, testing, or sale of Benlate, and if so, whether such negligence was a legal cause of the loss, injury, or damage sustained by the plaintiffs,” said Judge Donner.
“If the greater weight of the evidence does not support this claim of the plaintiffs, your verdict should be for the defendant DuPont. However, if the greater weight of the evidence does support this claim, then your verdict should be for the plaintiffs. “The absence of a pregnancy or birth defect warning on the product label is not a basis of liability,” said the judge.
“In determining whether Benlate was defectively designed and whether the risk of danger in design outweighs the benefits of Benlate, you may consider the usefulness and desirability of the Benlate product, the availability of other and safer products to meet the same needs, the likelihood of injury and its probable seriousness, the obviousness of danger, common knowledge and normal public expectations of danger, and the avoidability of injury by care in use of the product.
“Okay, now we get to the issues for your determination on the negligence claim of the plaintiffs against defendant Pine Island Farms,” continued Judge Donner. “One, whether Pine Island Farms sprayed Benlate at the subject field on November first or November second, 1989; two, whether Pine Island Farms was negligent in the spraying of Benlate on November first or second, 1989; and if so, whether such negligence was a legal cause of loss, injury, or damage sustained by the plaintiffs.
“If the greater weight of the evidence does not support this claim of the plaintiffs, your verdict should be for the defendant Pine Island Farms. However, if the greater weight of the evidence does support this claim, then your verdict should be for the plaintiffs,” said the judge.
“Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care. Reasonable care is that degree of care that a reasonably careful person would use under like circumstances.
Negligence may consist either in doing something that a reasonably careful person would not do under like circumstances or in failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do under like circumstances.”
Judge Donner continued to explain in very easy-to-understand terms each and every claim and the evidence the jury should or should not consider when making their determination for a verdict and damages.
If the jurors found for both defendants, they were not responsible for considering any damages. However, if they found for the plaintiffs against either or both defendants, they were instructed to award an amount of money that the greater weight of the evidence showed would fairly and adequately compensate them for such loss, injury, or damage, including any such damage as the plaintiffs were reasonably certain to incur or experience in the future.
In my next post, I continue to recount the judge’s instructions to the jury – and the difficulty of presenting to jurors a complicated series of considerations properly.
This post is adapted from my book, Blindsided, which presents in great detail the case, the people involved and the groundbreaking outcome.