Many fiduciary litigation concepts, like undue influence, lack of capacity, or breach of fiduciary duty, can be difficult for the lay people of a jury to understand.  For lay people, sometimes the actual law doesn’t always match up to what they may think is right or wrong.  So, when a case actually ends up going to the jury, the temptation for the lawyers litigating it may be to try to drive some last points home through the jury charges by repeating the law several times.

In Burkhalter v. Burkhalter, however, after a jury returned a verdict vindicating an alleged undue influencer, the Court of Appeals of Iowa granted a new trial on the claims because of a faulty jury charge regarding undue influence.  The appellate court found that the charge was either unduly repetitive and therefore faulty or through its unnecessary repetition gave undue emphasis to otherwise correct statements of law.

Let’s check out the faulty jury charge on undue influence.

The improper undue influence jury instruction read as follows:

In order for [the party claiming undue influence] to prevail on his claim of undue influence, he must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that at or about the time the trust provisions were changed all of the following circumstances existed:

1. [The grantor] was susceptible to the type of influence described in paragraph 4 of this instruction.

2. [The alleged undue influencer] had the opportunity to exercise such influence over [the grantor].

3. [The alleged undue influencer] was inclined to influence for purposes of gaining favor.

4. [The alleged undue influencer] assumed a position of dominance over [the grantor]’s decisions to the extent that the decision to change the trust provisions was [the alleged undue influencer]’s decision rather than [the grantor]’s decision.

5. The changes made to the trust provisions were clearly the result of the foregoing circumstances.

Every part of the jury charge by itself is a correct statement of Iowa law.  Paragraph 4 of the charge, however, was the problem.  By adding paragraph 4, the plaintiff must prove (1) the grantor was susceptible to influence; (2) the alleged undue influencer had the opportunity to exercise such influence, (3) the alleged undue influencer was inclined to influence to the grantor, and (4) the undue influence as a “fait accompli” (a thing actually accomplished).  At that point, under this jury instruction, the plaintiff must still go back and prove that the changes made to the trust were clearly the result of these four things.  By adding this fourth paragraph, the trial court added another step for plaintiff to prove.  This “render[ed] the instruction faulty either through repetition, or by giving undue emphasis to otherwise correct statements of the law.”

What’s interesting here is that the court ended up giving this jury instruction rather than the form Iowa civil jury instruction on undue influence.  The form jury instruction is similar to the version given by the court, but omits the problematic paragraph 4 added by the court here:

2700.4  Undue Influence – Essentials For Recovery.  The law presumes a person is free from undue influence.  To overcome this presumption, plaintiff must prove each of the four following propositions:

1.  At the time the will was made (testator) was susceptible to undue influence.

2.  _________ had the opportunity to exercise such influence and carry out the wrongful purpose.

3.  _________ was inclined to influence (testator) unduly for the purpose of getting an improper favor.

4.  The result was clearly brought about by undue influence.

If the plaintiff has failed to prove one or more of these propositions, your verdict will be for the defendant.  If plaintiff has proved all of these propositions, your verdict will be for plaintiff.

By adding that extra paragraph, the plaintiff now gets another shot at proving his case to a jury.