Monday, April 19, 2021

"Eggshell Skull Rule" means Derek Chauvin had to take George Floyd "as he found him," raising the likelihood of conviction in Minnesota murder trial


Closing arguments are set to begin today in the case of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, on trial for murder in the death of George Floyd. Defense attorneys are expected to argue that Floyd died from pre-existing health conditions -- even though expert witnesses for the prosecution have testified the death was due to "asphyxiation from compression," due to Chauvin placing his knee on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.

Even if jurors choose to ignore the testimony of prosecution witnesses, should the defense argument get anywhere? The answer is no, and that's because of a common-law rule that dates to a 1901 case in England styled Dulieu v. White. It's called the "Eggshell Skull Rule" (also called the "Thin Skull Rule"), and it applies in both civil and criminal cases. Here is the gist of it, from Wikipedia:

This rule holds that a tortfeasor is liable for all consequences resulting from their tortious (usually negligent) activities leading to an injury to another person, even if the victim suffers an unusually high level of damage (e.g. due to a pre-existing vulnerability or medical condition). The eggshell skull rule takes into account the physical, social, and economic attributes of the plaintiff which might make them more susceptible to injury. It may also take into account the family and cultural environment. The term implies that if a person had a skull as delicate as that of the shell of an egg, and a tortfeasor who was unaware of the condition injured that person's head, causing the skull unexpectedly to break, the defendant would be held liable for all damages resulting from the wrongful contact, even if the tortfeasor did not intend to cause such a severe injury.

Our research indicates the Eggshell Rule is most likely to apply in a tort case, but it could become a key factor in a criminal matter, such as the Floyd case. From Wikipedia:

In criminal law, the general maxim is that the defendant must "take their victims as they find them", as echoed in the judgment of Lord Justice Lawton in R v. Blaue (1975), in which the defendant was held responsible for killing his victim, despite his contention that her refusal of a blood transfusion constituted an intervening act.

Does this mean Chauvin is a lock to be convicted? Probably not, but his defense team has a high hill to climb, and one of its primary arguments -- by law -- should not get very far. At least one journalist covering the Chauvin trial already has addressed the "Eggshell Skull Rule." From a report by Stephen Groves at Associated Press:

As attorneys argued over whether to allow evidence from George Floyd's 2019 arrest at the trial of a former police officer charged in his death in 2020, Judge Peter Cahill wanted to know the relevance of Floyd's behavior a year before he died.

Weren’t Derek Chauvin and other officers “duty bound to deal with the arrestee as they find them?” Cahill asked.

Those very words -- that officers are “duty bound to deal with the arrestee as they find them” -- form the heart of the "Eggshell Skull Rule." That Judge Cahill clearly is aware of the rule -- and you never can assume that a judge knows the law -- probably is not a good sign for Chauvin. Here is more from AP's Stephen Groves:

Legal and criminal justice experts say Cahill was expressing a longstanding concept that police officers are required to protect not only themselves and the public, but the person they are arresting. That duty could be key at the trial that starts with opening statements Monday, especially as the defense asserts that Floyd's swallowing of pills contributed to his death.

“You always want to keep in mind what our motto is and that is to protect and serve the public. That includes the arrestee,” said Mylan Masson, who once headed police training at Hennepin Technical College and served on the Minnesota Police Officers Standards and Training Board for more than 20 years.

The Minneapolis Police Department sought to train its officers to minimize violence in the years before Floyd died. In 2016, the department rewrote its use of force policy to emphasize the “sanctity of life,” and began training officers in de-escalation — calming people down to prevent violence.

“The point of this new use of force policy was to communicate to officers to not do exactly what Chauvin did,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor who has argued for sweeping criminal justice reform. Floyd's death indicates the 2016 reforms in Minneapolis didn't work, he said.

The AP report gets even more specific about a legal doctrine that dates back some 120 years:


Defense attorney Eric Nelson has repeatedly sought to use evidence from the 2019 arrest, when Floyd swallowed drugs and a paramedic told him he had dangerously high blood pressure. Nelson argued that striking similarities in the two arrests justified the jury hearing about the earlier one.

The judge ultimately decided to allow some evidence from that arrest, though he limited it to information possibly pertaining to the cause of death and excluded Floyd’s “emotional behavior,” such as calling out to his mother, which he did in both incidents.

Ted Sampsell-Jones, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School, noted that Minnesota's “common plan” doctrine allows lawyers to outline comparable behaviors to demonstrate a pattern.

“This is being admitted to show similar behavior, namely that Floyd attempted to conceal drugs by ingesting them as he was being arrested, and that he almost had a heart attack as a result,” Sampsell-Jones said, referring to Floyd's 2019 arrest.

Legal experts said Chauvin's defense team will surely bring in expert witnesses who will point to the fentanyl found in Floyd's body during an autopsy as a contributing factor in his death.

Prosecutors argued that the admission of the 2019 arrest would allow the defense lawyer to smear Floyd for using drugs to excuse his client’s actions, but Cahill said he would stop the defense “very quickly” from suggesting at trial that Floyd didn’t deserve sympathy.

Floyd also had severe heart disease, but legal experts say there is a legal doctrine — known as the “eggshell skull rule” — that just because a person who commits wrongdoing is in a fragile state of health, it doesn't excuse another from liability for causing them injury. Though the principle applies to personal injury lawsuits, legal experts said it may also weigh on the case and how the judge instructs the jury to view Floyd's health and drug use.

“The jury will have to decide — listening to dueling autopsy reviews — what was the cause of death?” Schultz said.


Anonymous said...

Hoping and praying we can avoid riots and violence.

legalschnauzer said...


The former California home of a defense witness in the Derek Chauvin murder trial was vandalized with a pig's head and blood smears most likely tied to his testimony from the trial, police said.

Last week, Barry Brodd, the retired police officer, said he believed the former Minneapolis officer was justified in his use of force during the George Floyd arrest.

The Santa Rosa Police Department issued a statement on Saturday that said it seemed that the "suspects in this vandalism were targeting" Brodd for his testimony. The statement said the vandals seemed to have targeted the wrong home because Brodd has not lived there for years.

Brodd, a former Santa Rosa police officer, told the court last Tuesday that it is "easy to sit and judge ... an officer’s conduct.

"It’s more of a challenge to, again, put yourself in the officer’s shoes to try to make an evaluation through what they’re feeling, what they’re sensing, the fear they have, and then make a determination."

Brodd likened Floyd's death to a situation in which officers use a Taser on someone and the suspect falls, hits his head and dies: "That isn’t an incident of deadly force. That’s an incident of an accidental death."

legalschnauzer said...

Fox: Minnesota mayor removes 'thin blue line' flag outside police station over criticism it's 'inflammatory'

A pro-law enforcement flag that was flying outside Brooklyn Center, Minnesota's police station has been removed amid concerns that it would inflame tensions in the wake of Daunte Wright's death.

At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Mike Elliott confirmed that he had asked for the "thin blue line" flag's removal.

The pro-police flag has come under scrutiny amid widely-publicized police encounters with Black Americans.

Elliot said he had received "a number of inquiries about the flag. I've gotten inquiries from the ACLU of Minnesota, requests to have that flag taken down because they see it and the community sees it as inflammatory."

Anonymous said...

Good information, LS. Thanks for getting this out there. Important for the public to know.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to see how Chauvin could be acquitted under the eggshell rule.

legalschnauzer said...

Agreed. Interesting that the judge has referenced the gist of the eggshell rule once, even though I don't think he's used that actual term.

Anonymous said...

Can the judge overrule the jury if they screw it up?

legalschnauzer said...

You are talking about a Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV), and yes, that can happen in many jurisdictions. Not sure about Minnesota, but will do some checking:

judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV)
Primary tabs

A judgment by the trial judge after a jury has issued a verdict, setting aside the jury's verdict and entering a judgment in favor of the losing party without a new trial. A JNOV is very similar to a directed verdict except for the timing within a trial. A judge will issue a JNOV if he or she determines that no reasonable jury could have reached the jury’s verdict based on the evidence presented at trial, or if the jury incorrectly applied the law in reaching its verdict. A trial judge may grant a JNOV in response to a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict by the losing party, or in some jurisdictions like California, sua sponte. In a civil case, the judge can grant a JNOV in favor of both plaintiffs and defendants. Some jurisdictions require that a party preserve the right to move for a JNOV by moving for a directed verdict earlier in the trial. A motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict is often filed together with a motion for a new trial by the losing party in response to the jury’s verdict. A judge’s decision to grant or deny a motion for JNOV is often reviewable on appeal. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have replaced JNOV with Judgement as a Matter of Law (JMOL).

legalschnauzer said...

Here is the Minnesota. They call it Judgment as a Matter of Law:

Rule 50.Judgment as a Matter of Law in Jury Trials; Alternative Motion for New Trial; Conditional Rulings
50.01Judgment as a Matter of Law During Trial

If during a trial by jury a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue, the court may decide the issue against that party and may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against that party with respect to a claim or defense that cannot under the controlling law be maintained or defeated without a favorable finding on that issue.
(b)Timing and Content.

Motions for judgment as a matter of law during trial may be made at any time before submission of the case to the jury. Such a motion shall specify the judgment sought and the law and the facts on which the moving party is entitled to the judgment.

(Amended effective January 1, 2006; amended January 9, 2006.)
50.02Making or Renewing Motion for Judgment After Trial; Alternative Motion for New Trial

If, for any reason, the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made during trial, the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. Whether or not the party has moved for judgment as a matter of law before submission of the case to the jury, a party may make or renew a request for judgment as a matter of law by serving a motion within the time specified in Rule 59 for the service of a motion for a new trial - and may alternatively request a new trial or join a motion for a new trial under Rule 59. In ruling on such a motion, the court may:

(a) if a verdict was returned:

(1) allow the judgment to stand,

(2) order a new trial, or

(3) direct entry of judgment as a matter of law; or

(b) if no verdict was returned:

(1) order a new trial, or

(2) direct entry of judgment as a matter of law.

(Amended effective January 1, 2006; amended effective January 2, 2006.)
50.03Granting Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law; Conditional Rulings; New Trial Motion
(a)Conditional Rulings.

If the motion for judgment as a matter of law is granted, the court shall also rule on the motion for a new trial, if any, by determining whether it should be granted if the judgment is thereafter vacated or reversed, and shall specify the grounds for granting or denying the motion for the new trial. If the motion for a new trial is thus conditionally granted, the order thereon does not affect the finality of the judgment. In case the motion for a new trial has been conditionally granted and the judgment is reversed on appeal, the new trial shall proceed unless the appellate court has otherwise ordered. In case the motion for a new trial has been conditionally denied, the respondent on appeal may assert error in that denial; and if the judgment is reversed on appeal, subsequent proceedings shall be in accordance with the order of the appellate court.

Any motion for a new trial under Rule 59 by a party against whom judgment as a matter of law is rendered shall be served and heard within the times specified in Rule 59 for the service and hearing of a motion for a new trial.

(Added effective January 1, 2006; amended effective January 2, 2006.)
50.04Denial of Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

If the motion for judgment as a matter of law is denied, the party who prevailed on that motion may, as respondent on appeal, assert grounds entitling the party to a new trial in the event the appellate court concludes that the trial court erred in denying the motion for judgment. If the appellate court reverses the judgment, nothing in this rule precludes it from determining that the respondent is entitled to a new trial, or from directing the trial court to determine whether a new trial shall be granted.

(Added effective January 1, 2006.)

legalschnauzer said...

Per Jesse Rodriguez at Twitter:

NYT: Since testimony began [in the Chauvin trial] on March 29, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead.


legalschnauzer said...

From CNN: Derek Chauvin guilty in death of George Floyd

Former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted on all charges by a jury in the Hennepin County court.

The 12 jurors found him guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in George Floyd's death in May 2020.

The maximum sentence for second-degree unintentional murder is imprisonment of not more than 40 years. The maximum sentence for third-degree murder is imprisonment of not more than 25 years. The maximum sentence for second-degree manslaughter is 10 years and/or $20,000.

Anonymous said...

You are confusing "civil" rules and "tort" concepts with criminal law - these are not the same

legalschnauzer said...

The post shows where the Eggshell Skull Rule applies to criminal cases and even quotes the judge making a reference to it in the Floyd case.