Mitchell v. Gonzales
Supreme Court of CA - 1991 (54 Cal. 3d 1041, 819 P.2d 872)
- P was 12 years old and small. P could not swim.
- D family invited P to go on vacation with them. P's mother testified that she informed D mother about P's inability to swim. P was only allowed to go on the condition that he would be restricted to the edge of the lake.
- D child and P went to the lake and paddled into deep water. D parents were not aware. P told D child that he could not swim, and D child promised to help P if he fell in the water.
- P fell into the water. P tried to grab D child, but D child pushed P away. P drowned.
- Lower court instructed the jury under BAJI 3.75 (proximate cause, but for) instead of BAJI 3.76 (legal cause).
- Lower court jury found D negligent but that negligence was not a cause of death.
- CA COA reversed, new trial, BAJI 3.75 is potentially misleading, court committed prejudicial error when it refused to give 3.76.
- CA Supreme Court affirmed, new trial, BAJI 3.75 should be disapproved, court erred when it refused to give 3.76.
- Did the court's use of BAJI 3.75 instead of BAJI 3.76 prejudice the jury so much as to require reversal, and should BAJI 3.75, the proximate cause instruction, continue to be given in CA?
- The court's use of BAJI 3.75 instead of BAJI 3.76 prejudiced the jury so much as to require a reversal.
- BAJI 3.75 should not continue to be given in CA.
- 3.75 - the "but for", proximate cause rule; asks whether the injury would not have occurred but for the D's conduct.
- 3.76 - the "legal cause" rule; asks whether the D's conduct was substantial factor in bringing about the injury.
- The proximate cause rule places an entirely wrong emphasis upon the factor of physical or mechanical closeness. In a study of 14 jury instructions, 3.75 produced the most misunderstanding among laypersons.
- BAJI 3.75 is conceptually and grammatically deficient and can mislead jurors to focus improperly on the cause that is spatially or temporally closest to the harm.
- When considering whether an error in jury instructions is so prejudicial as to require reversal, the following factors should be considered…
- The degree of conflict in the evidence on the critical issue.
- Whether the jury asked for a rereading of the erroneous instruction or related evidence.
- Analysis of the closeness of the jury's verdict.
- Whether defense counsel's closing argument contributed to the instruction's misleading effect.
- The effect of other instructions in remedying the error.
- This was a special verdict with two questions: Negligent? Proximate cause?
- Prof thinks the second statement might be a bit too liberal.