Presenting Scientific Concepts At Trial

Presenting a case at trial for a jury is like writing a good story for readers. The key to good writing is good editing. Most editing involves making sentences and paragraphs more concise and direct. A well-edited story will usually be shorter than the original draft. The goal is to make the piece easier to understand.

Preparing a case for trial involves the same goal and some of those same techniques. Good lawyers try to simplify the case. After years of working on the case, lawyers know it better than the jury ever could after a few days or weeks. The important parts of the case must be distilled to their essential elements. They then need to be further shortened. Decisions in cutting must be guided by this idea: What do the jurors really need to know in order to reach a verdict in my client’s favor?

The honing in and paring down process is even more important in cases involving complex science and engineering. In many product liability trials, the jury must be presented with scientific theories or evidence that may be hard to understand. The attorney must present the scientific information in a concise way that is easy for the jury to follow.

The temptation is to think that logic is always the way to best get this information to the jury. While attorneys are intimately familiar with logic, and use it all the time to educate themselves, jurors often process information differently in the courtroom. Experienced trial attorneys need to become familiar with sociological research, focus groups and past juror interviews to understand how best to present scientific concepts and facts to juries.

Studies show that attorneys must avoid the urge to overeducate the juries. Science and experts may still be a big part of the case, but it shouldn’t be at the forefront of most cases. Too often a juror will discount or ignore scientific evidence because a basic juror belief overrides it. For example, a recent study showed that, when trying to pick one red jellybean from a jar, people preferred to choose from a jar containing 7 red and 93 other colored jellybeans as opposed to a jar with just 1 red jellybean and 9 others. Logically, these people had a 7% chance of receiving the red jellybean from the larger jar and a 10% chance of receiving the red jellybean from the smaller jar. Nonetheless, the subjects related they felt more comfortable with their chances at the larger jar because it had seven times as many red jellybeans!

Jurors naturally rely on familiar strategies to make a decision on evidence just as they do in everyday life. They resort to these viewpoints when faced with making a decision in the courtroom, regardless of how badly a lawyer may want them to view the evidence based on scientific principles.

Though the science needs to be worked into the case, the main appeal to the jury should consider how they frequently reason in everyday life. One key to developing a persuasive approach is to recognize why some jurors might ignore scientific proof of cause and effect. For example, every juror believes they know someone who had something similar happen to them. These anecdotes infiltrate a juror’s perception of the case before them. The result can be ignoring the difficult-to-follow scientific explanation in favor of the more familiar - I’ve seen something like this before and here is how it should be resolved.

Consider a case of alleged exposure to toxic chemicals in drinking water. Jurors may focus solely on the presence or absence of any poor health before the exposure compared to any symptoms afterwards. This simplistic view may ignore scientific evidence which urges that the symptoms being alleged after the exposure could not have been caused by the specific chemicals found in the water. Lawyers must be wary of the view that because a symptom follows an event, it must have been caused by that event.

Another juror belief that is resistant to scientific reasoning is the view that the plaintiff should have taken more care to protect himself. Jurors may focus on the plaintiff’s alternatives and knowledge of the problem in arriving at a decision against him.

Though these juror beliefs are not always logical, research shows they exist and will infiltrate all types of cases. In cases with scientific evidence, offering the path of least resistance may help justify a favorable verdict in the mind of the juror.

A savvy lawyer must be aware of these mental shortcuts. It is useless to fight beliefs that are so ingrained unless absolutely necessary. The case should play into them, along with the scientific evidence. The scientific evidence becomes the support as opposed to the lead. The scientific part of the case must be integrated into the common-sense approaches with which jurors feel comfortable. When done properly, the focus is no longer on complex terminology most jurors have never heard before but on ideas they instantly recognize and accept.

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