Establishing Your Legal Claim And Component Elements
Your complaint gets you a trial, but for your case to succeed
you will need to present facts and witnesses to clearly establish the elements that entitle you to your
Bergman and Berman-Barrett in their book “Represent Yourself In
Press, 1998) use a handy device to illustrate this concept. They describe the legal claim as something akin
to a beam of light passing through a prism. The light entering the prism is joined in a solid wave, but as it
emerges, it is bent spectrally into its component hues and so it is with a legal claim. “What looks like a
unitary legal claim based on negligence, breach of contract, breach of warranty or almost any other type of
claim in fact consists of separate legal elements. To win a claim, you must prove each and every one of its
elements at trial.”
In an automobile negligence claim for example, you might have
four or more key elements to prove to clearly establish your claim. First, you will probably have to prove that
the defendant had a duty to protect you from the danger his vehicle presents, then, that he violated that duty
by operating his car at an unsafe speed. Then, you might have to establish that the defendant’s speeding is what
caused him to fail to apply the brake in time to stop before his vehicle rear-ended yours’ at the traffic light.
Finally, you will likely have to make it clear that his negligence directly resulted in costs to repair your
car, medical bills lost time from work as well as other various fees and charges for you.
What if in the course of your recuperation, you became aware
that the physician treating your fractured elbow improperly set the break and the resulting loss of circulation
has brought about a condition known as Volkmann’s Contracture, in which the muscle mass of the forearm has
decayed to an extent that you are left claw-handed.
In your medical malpractice claim against the doctor
who mistreated you, the
elements of your complaint would begin by establishing that the physician had a standard of care to meet,
setting your broken elbow to allow for proper circulation. Then, you would clearly prove that he did not
properly set your fracture according to established medical norms.
Next, you would want to prove causation – a legal term that simply
means “that which produces the effect.” – using evidence and expert witness testimony to prove that the
physician’s mistake directly caused your condition. Lastly, you would prove the damages you suffered because of
your condition with medical bills and physical therapy estimates, estimates of pain and suffering damages, and
any other costs past, present and future for your injuries.
Many smaller lawsuits involve breach of contract claims or
negligence, but there are literally hundreds of other potential tort claims and the prospective litigant should
also be aware that every state has its own rules on the specific elements required to prove your case. A few of
the more commonplace types of claims – otherwise known as cause of
action – include:
Breach of bond, contract, warranty
Conversion, theft of property
Defamation (libel and slander)
Divorce, dissolution of a marriage
Eviction, ejection from property
Nuisance, public, private
Trespass, violating property or privacy rights
Usury, predatory lending
What do you assert as the cause of action for your complaint?
You can write, in clear language, a sentence or two that establishes exactly what happened. Just bear in mind
that a complaint charging a dog owner with “negligence” sounds better and more professional than a complaint
that charges “the Smith mutt got loose and tore through our flower bed before attacking and killing our prize
winning Rock roosters worth $1,500, each.” More importantly, it also serves to shield the cause of action
against an early motion for summary judgment or motion to dismiss and other possible actions designed to
capitalize on the lack of specificity in your complaint.
How do you exactly determine the elements for your complaint?
This may actually be a more involved question than it seems at first. You can start by checking your state’s
manual of standard jury instructions.
These will help you understand the points of law that the judge will convey to the jurors before they retire
to consider the case. The judge will go over the elements of the claim, as well as the burden of
proof standard and may remind jurors as well of
standards for considering evidence. Many states prepare model language for the judge to share with the jury,
which essentially spells out the elements of various claims and causes of action.
Its is always a good idea to familiarize yourself with
the sets of standard or model jury instructions for two reasons: 1) The standards remain whether the case is
a jury trial or not and the judge will decide the claim based on whether the elements have been proven
whether there is a jury to tell or not. 2) Erroneous jury instructions are some of the absolute best facts
to have at hand on appeal to have a judgment overturned.
Another source to discover the component elements of your cause
of action can be found in legal outlines, exhaustive exercises researched and written by law school students,
many of them are readily available on the Web.
The key thing to keep forefront in your mind as you work through
your trial preparations and your presentation before the judge or jury is that these your claim breaks down into
elements, each of which must be proven in order for you to win the case. It is not sufficient to simply state
the claim as an allegation against your opponent or even to be aware of the elements of law that must be proven
to support that claim. You have to present facts and testimony evidence to prove the elements that will
eventually validate your claim. Understand?
This becomes tricky because these burdens have no real
mathematical formulae or easy set of instructions to work through abstract and often subjective concepts. What
are the legal limits of concepts like “Standard of Care,” “Reciprocal duties” and “Causation?”
Managing your facts and component elements before and during
trial will help guide much of the rest of your thinking through the discovery phase, allowing you to know better
whom to talk to and what to ask and what facts to find; and through possible settlement talks, as you negotiate
from a position of strength, well-versed in the relative merits and weaknesses of your case. It will guide you
at trial through your presentations and will certainly give you milestones to shoot for at closing as you draw
attention to the elements making up your cause of action and remind the judge or jury of the facts supporting
each of those elements.