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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 claim.


Bergman and Berman-Barrett in their book “Represent Yourself In Court”  [5] (Nolo 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

Fraud, misrepresentation

Mortgage foreclosure


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.


Think about it…

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.


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