How to Read a Case: And Understand What it Means – YouTube

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“To the first podcast for legal research. Writing and analysis. The first podcast involves how how to read a case and understand what it means. This presentation is in large based on an article by julie navcom at university at albany.

We start with a quote what is reading. But silent conversation by walter savage landor basically when you re reading each case you re going to be asking yourself a series of questions part of this podcast is going to demonstrate to you how i read over a case and the questions that i ask in my own mind each time one of the first things i m looking at as i m reading a case is the background information. What court is hearing. This case is it a lower court like a district court in appellate court.

Or the supreme court is it a state court or is it a federal court and also the date the year that the case was heard all these things are important in considering the relative weight of authority here s the case that we re going to use for purposes of this exercise. It s called city of austin versus davis. I want to caution you we re using this as a learning tool. So i have edited this extensively from the actual case.

But the beginning of the case would look just like this and here s the information you would get i would take a look at the citation and notice that the case is found in the southwest 2nd reporter series the volume number would be 693 and it begins on page 31. You re going to be learning more about this these citations and the reporters in your research class. But for now that s the information. I would get from that citation.

We can see that the name of the case is city of austin versus davis and that it was heard in 1985. So i m considering this in the back of my mind to say hmmm. It s a fairly. I guess recent case 1985.

It s not that old and then here. I would look at this brief synopsis of the case. I caution you never to quote to this summary or synopsis or sometimes called syllabus a lot of s is there literation. But you that s really a summary based on an employee.

It the services either westlaw or lexus. So you never want to quote from that syllabus you want to go to the heart of the case. You also want to take a look at what are the facts of the case. The facts will probably be background facts so that it will tell a story about what happened but the court will also give you the legally relevant facts those important facts that it used in its decision you can also tell from the facts.

Who are the parties what their claims were and what was the plaintiff seeking you ll also be able to tell what the legal question was in the case. That s really the question that the court is asking and it may be narrow or it may be a little bit more broad the holding. Then is the answer to this question. Now a court can do several things in it things in its holding.

It can affirm the lower court s decision. Which means that it is agreeing with the lower court. It can reverse the lower court s decision and or it can also remand on all remand means is that it s sending it back down to the lower court for some particular determination one of the trickiest things that new law students find is trying to find out why. The court acted in a certain way so once you know the issue or the question.

The court..


Asked and then you find out the holding. Or the answer to that question. Then you always have to ask yourself why and that s the reasoning of the court. It can be tricky.

Because the court doesn t necessarily always come out and say. It s reasoning or why it held a certain way. So you kind of have to read between the lines. In doing so you want to pay close attention to the tests that the court uses in making its determination now most of the opinions that you re going to be reading in law school are really the majority opinions those majority opinions are going to be binding on future courts.

According to starry decisis. However there may be other judges or justices who disagree for some reason with the majority opinion and want to write their own opinions and those can be called dissenting opinions in which case the court or the judge disagrees with the outcome of the case or a concurring opinion in which the court does agree with the outcome. But maybe for different reasons pay close attention to those different opinions. Because those can actually be persuasive on future courts now remember that they re not binding.

But they can be persuasive authority as you re reading the case you want to analyze how does this case or the courts reasoning fit in with other cases both before and after this particular case. How does this particular court change. The law in this area does it adopt previous court s reasoning or does it extend it or modify. It in some way does the court fail to address a particular aspect of this issue pay particular attention to the courts language in the holding any information that the court.

Gives that is outside of the question. That s put before it can be considered dicta. This extraneous reasoning or information is not binding on future courts. But it can be very persuasive.

It gives an indication as to what the court is thinking in which direction. The court is headed with respect to that area of law. All right let s practice. How to read a case.

So the senior attorney came to me and asked me to research cases in our jurisdiction in texas regarding. The tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress. We have a client who came upon the scene of an accident in which his daughter was the victim when he was in an apartment complex. When the accident occurred.

He walked out in the middle of the street. Saw his daughter lying in the middle of the road and suffered a heart attack. So he s suing for damages based upon this tort from my prior research. I know that for negligent infliction of emotional distress in texas.

One of the things that is required is a sensory and contemporaneous perception of the accident. And i also know from reading these prior cases that sensory and contemporaneous means that the plaintiff had to experience the accident with his senses at the time that it occurred. So that s the background information. I d like you to know before we begin reading the case.

All right let s get going here..


I ve got this case city of austin versus davis. I can see that it s a 1985 case that it was from the court of appeals of austin texas. So that is in my jurisdiction so let me take a look at the syllabus here to see if it s on point. And i should read further now the father disclaimed.

An interest in an action for wrongful death of his son and brought an action against a city hospital for his own mental distress and physical injuries as a bystander when he found his son s body seems like it s on point like it s a bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress case so i ll read on. But first who are the parties involved here let me just try to get this straight. While the plaintiff in the lower court must have been mr. Davis.

Who s the father of the dead son and then the city of austin owned. A hospital and that the city of austin was the defendant in the lower court. I also know that i would never cite to this syllabus here or the summary. Because that s not part of the opinion.

But from this i can see that the lower court found in favor of the father and then the appellate court. In this case. Affirmed. The decision.

I remember that affirmed means that the appellate court agreed with the lower court s decision. So now i want to start looking at the actual opinion. And what i see is that the opinion begins with the judges name here justice is spelled out. But often i see it with just a j.

So. This is where the opinion starts now when i look at the facts of the case. The court gives me kind of a brief synopsis of what happened essentially kenny was in the hospital from head trauma. And his father would come to visit him every day on one particular day.

He came in to visit and there was no kenny in the bed. So he began looking all around in search of his son. Then i noticed particularly some facts that might be legally significant or important first that the father was searching the hospital grounds along with the hospital staff. It appears that he searched for about three hours and included not only the hospital grounds.

But also the surrounding parks and rec areas then there was another search a second go round of the hospital basement. Where the dad was accompanied by a security officer and they stumbled upon the son s dead body at the base of the air shaft. So now. I m wondering what the court is going to do in this case since mr.

Davis was not actually like a witness present at the time that the accident occurred. But rather he stumbled upon it is that going to satisfy the requirement for sensory and contemporaneous perception. Something that i noticed in the body of the opinion is an asterisk with bold numbers 33. I realize that westlaw and lexus versions of the opinion have these numbers inserted within them called star pagination and everything after that number indicates to me the reader that that would appear on page 33 of the actual text of the opinion in the reporters after the facts.

I come upon the two issues in the case..


So the two issues presented before the court for review are one whether davis has a separate cause of action for his own injuries. Not the wrongful death of his son. But actually a cause of action resulting from his own injury and emotional distress. Upon seeing his dead son and then two if he does whether he s a separate injured person.

According to the meaning of this tort claims that we re going to focus on number one the first issue. Because that s the issue in my case. That s really important so that s what i m going to be focusing on so when i get to the real body. This is kind of the guts so to speak of the opinion.

This is really what law is the court applying in this particular case of city of austin versus. Davis. And it gives us a little bit of history of the law from prior cases first. It says.

The courts of this state have long recognized the right to recover for nied. It s also well settled that a successful plaintiff must prove his injuries were reasonably foreseeable by the defendant okay. But then it goes on to say and it cites this landreth v. Reed case.

And says that the bystander doctrine. Recruits. Requires proof of three elements. So i m thinking okay.

Three elements two of which are pertinent here. The court. Tells me exactly what these important elements are first the plaintiff has to be in close proximity to the scene of the accident and finally. The plaintiffs injuries must have been approximately caused by a contemporaneous perception of the incident.

So the rule that the court is applying is really in a plain language sense. The plaintiff has to be near the scene of the accident. And that also has to experience it at the time that it s occurring. I also know see here that the rule prescribed in landreth in this prior.

Case is not inflexible and is tempered. With the caveat. That each case must be evaluated on its own merits. So it sounds as if the court is taking each case as it comes on a case by case basis.

So i m looking down a little lower now and i see what the city s argument. Is they re essentially arguing that davis was not present at the time. There was no censoring contemporaneous perception of the incident because mr. Davis was not present when the sun fell from the shaft.

I wonder how the court s going to respond to that argument..


So the court suggests that it disagrees with the defendants argument and that this contemporaneous perception. Requirement is actually going to be liberally construed construed. So it s going to give more latitude toward the plaintiff. Improving this particular factor.

It cites this land drift aid. So i wonder if that s important in landreth. It was held the actual observance of the incident was unnecessary if there was some perception of the incident other than learning of it from others after it happened so again. We re adding to that rule or changing the rule.

That was we inherited from the prior cases that you had to be there present at the time of the accident and now it seems as if the court is backing off a little bit and saying as long as there is some kind of perception of it and that you don t learn of it from others that you may be able to satisfy the requirements. The bystander requirements. The court also cites this grizzle case in which the plaintiff arrived on the scene after the accident occurred. But he was brought so close to the reality of the accident as to render her experience an integral part of it the court goes on to say that the city s argument.

Is essentially the fact that mr. Davis was not at the bottom of the air shaft. When the accident occurred. But we re not going to hold that that precludes him from recovery in fact.

The court suggests that this premise ignores. Some of the other facts surrounding this situation one of the legally significant facts that the court refers to is that mr. Davis was intensely involved in the search and its subsequent discovery of his son this begins. The courts.

Reasoning. And the fact that he was involved in the search suggests that that was could or could satisfy the contemporaneous requirement. He didn t learn of the incident from others. But rather found his son s body himself in light of these circumstances.

We hold there s the holding that davis was brought so close to the reality of the accident as to render his experience. An integral part of it and that perception was enough to satisfy the bystander doctrine. Now what i would do typically is go back and reread. The case.

Now that i have a basic understanding of the facts. I want to zero in on the courts. Holding and its reasoning. That s how i would typically read a case.

Remember that as you re in law school for a longer period of time. You re going to be able to read these cases with a little bit more efficiency. ” ..

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Jennifer Rosa, Michigan State University College of Law

How to Read a Case: And Understand What it Means

Based in part on article by Julie Novkov at Universtiy at Albany, SUNY

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