Redefining Legal Standards: A Closer Look at White v. Stanley
10/27/2023In the recent case of White v. Stanley, No. A23A0986, 2023 WL 6413214 (Ga. Ct. App. Oct. 3, 2023), the Georgia Court of Appeals inquired into Georgia's pattern jury instruction regarding the preponderance of the evidence standard, initially rooted in the state's former evidence code that had been repealed. The central question before the Court was whether the adoption of the new evidence code in 2012 mandated a revision of the pattern jury instruction.
Over a decade ago, Georgia's General Assembly introduced the state's current evidence code, which has been applicable to all cases tried on or after January 1, 2013. Under the previous evidence code, the term "preponderance of the evidence" was explicitly defined by statute as: “that superior weight of evidence upon the issues involved, which, while not enough to free the mind wholly from a reasonable doubt, is yet sufficient to incline a reasonable and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than to the other.” O.C.G.A. § 24-1-1(5) (2012). With the adoption of the current evidence code in 2013, the statutory definition of the preponderance of the evidence standard was omitted. Despite this, however, the old pattern instruction in use before 2013 persisted and continued to be used regularly in its prior form or with slight variations.
The White v. Stanley case involved allegations of negligence and personal injuries arising out of a motor vehicle collision. The case proceeded to trial and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. Following the jury's verdict, the plaintiff asserted that a new trial was warranted due to an erroneous preponderance of the evidence jury instruction. Although the Court of Appeals ruled this was an insufficient basis to grant a new trial, the Court acknowledged the inaccuracy of the instruction in its opinion.
In the White case, the preponderance of the evidence jury instruction was nearly identical to Georgia's current pattern jury instruction. When considering this instruction, in the absence of a statutory definition within Georgia's current code, the Court turned its attention to the code's preamble and held:
“because our General Assembly’s codified intent in enacting the current evidence code was to, for the most part, model it after the Federal Rules of Evidence (which do not provide a definition of preponderance of the evidence), we agree with [the plaintiff] that we must look to federal caselaw in determining Georgia’s legal definition of this evidentiary standard.”
Id. at 3. (emphasis added). The Court emphasized that the "preponderance of the evidence" standard requires “the trier of fact to believe that the existence of a fact is more probable than its nonexistence.” Id. They also noted that the Supreme Court of Georgia had a similar definition consistent with federal precedent. Based on this standard, the Court of Appeals found fault with the trial court's jury instruction, which referenced a higher reasonable doubt standard, causing confusion and rendering the instruction incorrect.
The ruling in White has significant implications. It mandates revising the preponderance of the evidence pattern jury instructions and raises questions about the consistency of other instructions with the new evidence code and federal law. While the Pattern Jury Instructions Committee typically updates instructions, no revisions have occurred since the Court of Appeals’ decision in White. Additionally, the Court of Appeals signaled its reliance on federal sources when reviewing pattern jury instructions based on the prior evidence code, emphasizing the need for federal case law in the absence of direct, binding state guidance.
In light of this ruling, Georgia litigants should contemplate substituting Georgia's pattern jury instruction regarding the preponderance of the evidence with a definition that conforms to federal precedent. Additionally, litigants should exercise prudence when utilizing pattern instructions that may still rely on provisions from the revoked evidence code—especially if these instructions do not align with the Federal Rules of Evidence or their interpretations.
A copy of the opinion can be found below:
https://efast.gaappeals.us/download?filingId=ab67eb84-1ebc-4359-99d2-3a5f7ac363ea.CATEGORY: Personal Injury