This is a test. Have the following statement read aloud to you twice, and then paraphrase it in your own words:
"A proximate cause of an injury is a cause which, in natural and continuous sequence, produces the injury, and without which the injury would not have occurred."
The statement is a standard jury instruction. If you likened its meaning to the action of ominoes, in which the movement of one playing piece started a chain reaction that led to the fall of the others, then you have interpreted the instruction correctly.
But the chances are greater that you will misunderstand all or part of the meaning of those 27 words, which attempt to explain to the laymen a concept that law students and legal scholars have struggled with through the ages, according to the preliminary findings of a new study of jury instructions. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.
The study attempts to determine how well a random sample of 35 jurors from Prince Georges County comprehended a set of 14 standard jury instructions. Its authors are Veda R. Charrow, of the Center for Applied Linquistics in Arlington and her husband, Robert P. Charrow, a professor of law at Howard University.
They found, Veda Charrow said, that the majority of the jurors surveyed did not understand the instructions well enough to apply them accurately in reaching a verdict.
Occasionally, a verdict will be reversed because a jury instruction was incomprehensible, said David Mellinkoff, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, who specializes in language and the law.
In most instances, however, the jurors will simply roly on their common sense if they cannot understand the instruction given them by the judge, Mellinkoff said.
The difficulty arises when the instructions go beyond the bounds of common sense, as in the case of an instruction about proximate cause or when a jury is instructed on the legal technicalities of computing an award of money damages in a civil case, Robert Charrow said.
The authors took a "psycholinquistic" approach to the study, which in this case means the jurors were given a task - paraphrasing the instruction - to determine how accurately they filtered the language through their minds for understanding and recollection, Charrow said.
One purpose of the study was to isolate linquistic factors "typical of this brand of legalese" - like use of negatives and misplaced phrases in sentence structure - that could account for a jurors comprehension problems.
The jurors were scored both on the degree to which they understood the full instruction and how well they understood certain cruicial concepts within a given instruction, according to a working paper that sets out the preliminary results of the study.
For example, with the "proximate cause" instruction, the study found that the 35 people surveyed understood only 40 percent of the total instruction.
They understood less than 40 percent of the important concepts within the proximate cause instruction, like "natural and continuous sequence," the study said.
Twenty-three percent of the jurors surveyed misunderstood the term "Proximate cause" the study found and only 10 of the 35 jurors were able to paraphrase some or all of the instruction without any errors.
Only one of the jurors in the sample correctly paraphrased the entire instruction - and that juror has a Ph. D, the study said.
The phrase "in natural and continuous sequence" produced a "whole variety of misunderstandings" because the prepositional phrase is misplaced, the study said. The phrase appears to modify "cause" which is illogical, the study said. Instead, the clause should have been placed after the word "produces," the authors determined.
The authors rewrote the proximate casue instruction, using the term "legal cause" but when tested on the Prince Georges jurors, it only created additional confusion over what was a legal or an illegal cause, Charrow said.
She said the instruction has now been rewritten a second time and is being tested for comprehensibility on a sample of Montgomery County jurors.
The 14 instructions used in the study are standard instructions used in courts in California, which in the late 1930s was the first state to publish a set of standard jury instructions, Robert Charrow said.
The instructions were typical of those given by a judge at the end of a civil trial - in the study, the case involved an automobile accident.
The purpose of jury instructions is to inform the jury what the law is so that the jurors can apply it to the facts of a case as they attempt to reach a verdict. Generally, lawyers on both sides of a case meet with a judge near the close of a trial and iron out instructions to be read to the jury after all the evidence in a case has been presented.
Most standarized jury instructions are based on language in appeals court decisions where jury instructions have evaluated by the appellate judges. Therein lies the problem with rewriting jury instructions, the Charrows and others said yesterday.