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.