Monroe County attorney named to Jury Instructions Committee

By Ann Knef | Jan 6, 2006

It's not as theatrical as an aggressive cross-examination. But often the most dramatic phase of a jury trial is the wrangling that takes place in a judge's chambers over how jurors will be instructed.

It's not as theatrical as an aggressive cross-examination. But often the most dramatic phase of a jury trial is the wrangling that takes place in a judge's chambers over how jurors will be instructed.

"A judge has to instruct what the law is," explained personal injury attorney Stephen C. Buser of Columbia. "Jurors pledge they will follow the law."

The challenge is in knowing the law.

Buser, who was recently appointed to serve a two-year term on the Supreme Court Committee on Jury Instructions in Civil Cases, said the importance of jury instructions is not widely understood among the public, yet the stakes are high for the prosecution and defense.

"Sometimes a whole case can come down to jury instructions," Buser said.

Buser will meet with the committee Jan. 21 in Chicago to begin his assignment co-authoring the Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions (IPI) for civil cases. The IPI is a frequently modified comprehensive set of instructions used by state courts that address various causes of actions.

The basis for modification can come from higher court decisions and legislation.

At trial, after evidence is presented and closing arguments have been made a conference is convened by the judge and attorneys--which can last for hours--to determine if evidence is sufficient to prove a legal theory of recovery.

Sometimes it is contentious, particularly when cases are based on theories of liability such as contracts and the involvement of principals and agents.

"There is a lot of arguing back and forth," Buser said.

But the judge ultimately decides, and routinely tells jurors before specifically instructing them: "You must consider the Court's instructions as a whole, not picking out some instructions and disregarding others."

Buser said many cases are appealed based on claims of improper jury instructions.

The IPI offers specific guidelines for judges:

"Whenever Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions (IPI) contains an instruction applicable in a civil case, giving due consideration to the facts and the prevailing law, and the court determines that the jury should be instructed on the subject, the IPI instruction shall be used, unless the court determines that it does not accurately state the law.

"Whenever IPI does not contain an instruction on a subject on which the court determines that the jury should be instructed, the instruction given on that subject should be simple, brief, impartial and free from argument."

Buser was nominated to the committee position by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, whom he has been professionally associated with for several decades. The Illinois Supreme Court approved the appointment in November.

"(Justice Karmeier) has been a mentor and friend all these years," Buser said.

Buser said he has argued cases before Karmeier when he was a circuit judge in Washington County and the two have been adversaries in the courtroom.

Buser replaced 5th Appellate Court Judge Melissa A. Chapman on the committee.

Other members who were reappointed to the committee include attorneys Robert J. Bingle and Neil K. Quinn of Chicago, Rhonda J. Ferrero-Patten of Peoria and Cook County Circuit Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman of Chicago.

Other newly appointed members include attorneys James L. De Ano of Wheaton, Charles C. Hall of Danville, Laird M. Ozmon of Joliet and Robert A. Streiecky of Chicago, and Cook County Circuit Judge Sheldon A. Harris, also of Chicago.

Jury instructions in $43 million Ford verdict prejudiced, defense claims

Ford Motor Co. is appealing the largest verdict awarded by a Madison County jury in 2005--$43 million to the survivors of John Jablonski Sr.--asserting that jurors were prejudiced.

Jablonski was killed and his wife Dora Jablonski was seriously injured in a rear-end collision in 2003. The trial ended April 19, 2005.

Ford argued that Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian improperly excluded evidence about the negligence of the driver Ford blamed for the crash, Natalie Ingram.

"The notion that Ford was responsible - let alone to the tune of $43 million - for a rear end collision caused by a criminally negligent driver who rammed into plaintiffs at a speed in excess of 60 miles per hour is offensive to notions of common sense," wrote Ford attorney Dan Ball, of Bryan Cave in St. Louis.

The gas tank of the Jablonskis' 1993 Lincoln Town Car exploded when a rear end crash propelled a wrench from the trunk into the tank.

Ball argued that Matoesian should have instructed jurors to allocate fault between Ford and Ingram.

Plaintiff's counsel said in their opening statement that Ingram accepted responsibility, but plaintiffs presented no evidence for that, Ball wrote.

He wrote that Matoesian improperly prevented Ford from telling the jury that the crash involved four cars, as evidence of Ingram's excessive speed.

Ball also argued that Matoesian allowed irrelevant evidence. He wrote that one exhibit related to a 1975 Mercury and another related to a Thunderbird crash test.

The verdicts were "induced by the admission of incompetent, irrelevant and speculative evidence," he wrote.

He also argued that Matoesian gave improper instructions to the jury and refused to give proper instructions.

"…Ford did not and could not receive a fair trial, as the instructions given, taken as a whole, did not state the applicable law fairly and accurately, and were so unclear as to mislead the jury and prejudice Ford," he wrote.

Ball called the award of punitive damages "palpably absurd" and "so grossly excessive as to show passion, partiality or corruption on the part of the jury."

He wrote that, "…punitive damages are not intended to drive the defendant out of business or to threaten a defendant's financial stability."

Steve Korris contributed to this report.

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