What is the most common defense we find in our cases? It is to blame someone or something else. It might be an “empty chair” defendant or another party or more often, the plaintiff himself or herself. Dealing with evasion of personal responsibility is one of the things we need to learn to deal with in representing our clients. Let’s look at the reality of the situation.

We don’t have to look very far for numerous examples of the reluctance of people to own up to their own mistakes and to instead blame others. Look at our political scene today. Politicians always find someone else to blame for their bad conduct or mistakes. They always find scapegoats for every personal failure and make excuses by primarily blaming someone or something else. In our everyday world we see on television or in our relationships with others a common tendency to blame parents, circumstances or some other person for personal failures and problems.

What should be the situation? Well, someone has said “if you mess up, ‘fess up.”  Instead, as pointed out by the 1911 The Devil’s Dictionary “responsibility” is defined as “A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star. And it was trial lawyer Louis Nizer who said “When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.”

What are the classic ways in which people evade responsibility for what they have done? They are:

(1)   Denial:       I didn’t do it
(2)   Distortion: It didn’t happen that way
(3)   Minimize:  It wasn’t that bad
(4)   Evade:       It wasn’t me. It was him.

Examples of refusing to accept responsibility and be accountable for one’s own actions include:

  • Adam  blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent
  • Hitler blamed the Jews
  • Stalin blamed Trotsky

We need to communicate to our jury what should happen when a defendant is responsible for causing injury or harm to another. Suppose a boy playing baseball hits a ball through a window of the neighbor. We would want him to go to the neighbor and admit he was responsible plus say he was sorry and offer to pay for the damage.  We don’t expect him to deny he hit the ball or blame the pitcher or other players. We want our children to be taught the importance of accepting personal responsibility and being accountable. Our entire criminal justice system is based upon personal responsibility and accountability. Our civil justice system is equally dependent upon personal responsibility for the harm we cause and accountability to make up for it.

We should start in jury selection asking about personal responsibility attitudes. The questions should be framed as “some people feel that….while others believe….. Which way do you lean, even if just a little?” Ask: “How important is it for people to simply accept responsibility for their wrong doing rather than blame someone else or make up excuses?” “How do you feel about someone who tries to avoid accepting responsibility for their actions by blaming someone else?  Why? Who else feels that way?”

I think you follow up with the same thought  in opening statement which you identify the defense for what it really is: an excuse to avoid accountability. I suggest total honesty about what the defense really is througout the trial is the most effect way to deal with this kind of excuse  making and  evasion of personal responsibility.  After all, the justice system with a jury is all about the truth and accountability.


  1. As usual, this post is spot on point. I have used your Adam and Eve analogy many times. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on how to handle late admissions of liability (i.e. defendant admits fault on the first day of trial or a week before). How do you capitalize on this? And how do you keep it in evidence when the defendant argues that since fault is admitted, the timing is irrelevant. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  2. The defendant for the first time today admitted fault. That’s two long years we have waited and heard excuses. Are you doing to give them some kind of credit off the verdict we are seeking for compensation to make up for the harm they caused mr j

    In vd we are seeking $500,000 if we prove that our case is worth that would you be inclined to reduce the verdict because the def has finally admitted fault

    Have you ever heard of the staement justice delayed is justice denied.

    Then in opening say we are hear about a dispute in the harms caused to my client . We are seeking x amount of dollars at the end of this case we will look again at the sincereity of their admission of fault in relation to what they ask you to award in compensation.

    By the way asking which way they lean in my mind is a mistake. The jurors see that as a veiled attempt to get them to admit to commit to something that will help you and they get offended . just ask the open ended question. Rember #davidBall never tried a jury trial.

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