‘Reptile theory’ loses in bid to reduce $26.5M truck crash verdict

October 17, 2019

Tyson Fisher

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A federal judge has upheld a $26.5 million judgment against two trucking companies after attorneys tried to use the “reptile theory” to lower the verdict amount.

On Oct. 11, a judge in a federal court in Oregon denied Horizon Transport’s motion for a new trial and a challenge to a jury’s damage awards. The judge did not buy what is known as the “reptile theory” as justification for either motion.

In May, a jury found two companies jointly liable for a fatal crash caused by road rage. Brigham City, Utah-based Smoot Bros. Transportation was ordered to pay $1.5 million in punitive damages. Wakarusa, Ind.-based Horizon has to pay $5 million. Both are responsible for the remaining $20 million to the two plaintiffs.

Smoot had entered into an agreement with the plaintiffs before trial. As a result, it was dismissed from the lawsuit after the trial. However, Horizon challenged the damages award, asking the court for a new trial or to reduce the amount.

The ‘reptile theory’

Explaining the need for a new trial, attorneys for Horizon employed the reptile theory. According to an American Bar Association article, reptile theory “shifts the emphasis in lawsuits away from sympathy for an individual or class-action plaintiff and toward anger and punishment for a wrongdoer in order to vindicate the safety or similar interests of the community of which trial jurors are members.”

In essence, reptile theory is a reference to the primitive part of the human brain that responds to fear. Also shared by reptiles, this part of the brain favors safety and survival, according to law firm Epstein Becker Green.

Applied in the court room, reptile theory is the act of scaring the jury into fearing for their lives. If done effectively, the result is a win and a large damage award.

In its motion for a new trial, Horizon claims that plaintiff’s attorneys employed reptile theory during closing arguments. More specifically, plaintiffs’ attorneys reminded the jury of its role as the voice or conscience of the community.

Horizon’s attorneys used that same closing statement to employ the “golden rule” argument as well. The golden rule argument “encourages the jury to put themselves in the position of a party and render a verdict that the jurors would want if they were in that party’s position,” according to the court opinion.

However, the court pointed out that even if the argument was valid, which it is not, Horizon’s attorneys made the same error. During the trial the defense counsel told the jury “You have a very important job here,” according to court records. “You’re not only the voice of the community but the conscience of the community.”

Even if the reptile theory or golden rule arguments were valid, the court said objections were untimely. Attorneys should have raised those issues immediately after, not once the verdict was made.

Also relevant to the reptile theory, the Ninth Circuit has stated before that “using some degree of emotionally charged language during closing argument in a civil case is a well-accepted tactic in American courtrooms.”

The court was unpersuaded by either the reptile theory or golden rule argument. Consequently, the $26.5 million verdict was upheld, keeping Horizon on the hook for punitive damages of $5 million.

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.