Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Morbid Algebra

You’ve probably heard the crackerjack lawyers on Law and Order stand up and yell “objection, your honor!” when their opponents say or do something untoward. If the judge remembered to wear her mind reading helmet, or it’s plainly obvious that the other attorney is engaging in shenanigans, the judge can sustain the objection without further explanation. However, most of the time, you’re going to need to provide a reason for your objection.

One of the grounds for an objection is irrelevance: you can object to evidence that isn’t relevant to an issue in the case. Filibustering is for legislation, not litigation - there are rules that prevent attorneys from dragging in irrelevant facts to confuse juries.

One of the biggest treasure troves of irrelevant evidence is character evidence: evidence that has nothing to do with the facts of the case, but instead serves to poison the credibility or reputation of a witness or the defendant. You can read the relatively simple rules for excluding character evidence for defendants or witnesses, if you like. They’re not really important for the purposes of this discussion.

This discussion is about a rather odd case we read in my Evidence class. A widower was suing the driver of a car that hit for wrongful death. When you sue for wrongful death, there are a number of specific reasons you can claim you deserve damages: there is the physical pain from the actual loss of your loved one, there is the future companionship you would have enjoyed from that person, and there could also be the future financial benefit that person would have provided you.

The first theory is pretty simple to understand: the loss of a loved one due to someone’s negligence is immensely painful. The second one is also pretty straightforward. By definition, “loss of a loved one” means the loved one isn’t around to provide comfort anymore, and this leads to some odd discussions.

A defendant can either attempt to lessen the damages he would owe by showing that the yearly amount of comfort was not as great as the plaintiff is making it out to be, or the defendant can try to show that the plaintiff (or the loved one) will/would not be around to receive/provide as much comfort as the plaintiff is claiming. Think of it like algebra:

(Comfort Provided Per Year) x (Years Both Loved One and Plaintiff Would Be Alive) = Damages

Reducing either variable will reduce the overall damages, but you might imagine that a defense of “well, she was going to die soon, and she didn’t like you very much anyway” will not be very well-received by a jury.

Getting back to the case in my Evidence class, that was exactly the defense used in the widower’s claim against the driver. While evidence of one party’s character is usually irrelevant to the proceedings, the deceased’s opinion of the plaintiff can be very critical in determining just how much comfort and support the loved one would have provided.

While you can’t ask the plaintiff’s neighbor or mother or pastor what his opinion of the plaintiff is, you can produce evidence of the deceased’s opinion (for instance: a letter the deceased wrote to someone talking about how they couldn’t wait to divorce the plaintiff, because he’s a jerk). Despite the fact that this is certainly character evidence, this is also relevant because the deceased’s opinion of the plaintiff bears directly on the amount of money the plaintiff could receive.

It’s kind of funny that our legal system has created a process by which humans can be compensated for the loss of the uniquely human relationships that we enjoy, but the process itself dehumanizes the parties involved; we’ve just reduced the relationship and the remedy to morbid algebra. In a way, this seems very rational: if two parties have failed to reach a conclusion as reasonable human beings, then the best way to handle a situation is to empanel representatives of community standards (the jury) and use objective referees (the justice system) to reduce the whole situation to an indisputable mathematical certainty.

There’s something romantic about something so cold and emotionless. Perhaps it’s my inner Kantian at work.