White v. Stanley et al.

Georgia Court of Appeals Holds That Pattern Jury Instruction on Preponderance of the Evidence Standard Is Incorrect Statement of the Law


In a case that shows that the suggested pattern jury instructions are not always right, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that Georgia’s pattern charge on preponderance of the evidence is inaccurate and should not be given. 

In White v. Stanley, the Plaintiff sued two Defendants for injuries arising out of a car wreck. The plaintiff was on her way home when she saw a bicyclist, Defendant Cartee, on the shoulder of the road opposite her. Shortly after that, she saw Defendant Stanley driving a vehicle around a curve toward her. Defendant Stanley saw Defendant Cartee on the bicycle in Stanley’s lane of travel, causing Stanely to slam on the brakes and drive into oncoming traffic. Defendant Stanely struck one vehicle before crashing into the Plaintiff’s car. Two eyewitnesses gave statements that the bicyclist, Cartee, caused the collision.

Plaintiff filed suit against both Sanley and Cartee. After a jury trial, the jury returned a defense verdict in favor of both Defendants. Plaintiff appealed, challenging the jury instruction on the preponderance of the evidence standard. 

The preponderance charge that the trial court gave tracked the pattern jury charge. Specifically, the court charged the jury:  

The plaintiff has the burden of proof, which means the plaintiff must prove whatever it takes to make his case, except for any admissions in the pleadings by the defendant. The plaintiff must prove his case by what is known as preponderance of the evidence; that is, evidence upon the issues involved, while not enough to wholly free the mind from a reasonable doubt, is yet sufficient to incline a reasonable and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than the other.

Issue & Holding

The Court of Appeals held that the pattern jury charge does not correctly define the preponderance of the evidence standard, and as a result, the trial court’s jury charge was erroneous. However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict. 


The Court of Appeals applied the de novo standard of review to its evaluation of the challenged jury instruction because it was a question of law. When reviewing jury instructions, the instruction “must be evaluated in the context of the trial court’s jury instructions as a whole.” The instructions must be a correct statement of law and, as a whole, must not mislead a jury of ordinary intelligence.

The Court of Appeals stated that “preponderance of the evidence” requires showing that “something is more likely true than not.” The challenged jury instruction given at the trial level–which was virtually identical to the pattern jury instruction–was based on the old evidence code’s definition of “preponderance of the evidence,” which stated it was “that superior weight of evidence upon the issues involved, which, while not enough to free the mind wholly from a reasonable doubt, is yet sufficient to incline a reasonable and impartial mind to one side of the issue rather than to the other.”

When the new evidence code went into effect in 2013, that statutory definition was not carried forward. Now, there is no statutory definition of preponderance of the evidence. The new evidence code is modeled after the Federal Rules of Evidence, and so the Court of Appeals looked to federal caselaw defining the standard.

Federal cases, and Eleventh Circuit pattern jury instructions had a simple, straightforward definition:  it simply means proof that a claim is more likely true than not true. In applying the federal definition to its review of the suggested pattern jury instruction, the Court of Appeals determined that the Georgia pattnery charge was erroneous for two reasons. First, it referred to the reasonable-doubt burden of proof in its definition, and second, it included the confusing statement that a plaintiff “must do whatever it takes to make his case.” The fact that the pattern charge made reference to the reasonable doubt standard, but then failed to explain the differences between “beyond a reasonable doubt” and “preponderance of the evidence,” rendered the charge confusing and misleading.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals still affirmed the jury’s verdict because it was not harmful error. An improper jury instruction does not justify reversing the verdict “unless it was harmful, and in determining harm, the entirety of the jury instructions must be considered.” Erroneous charges are presumed to be harmful and prejduicial; however, the presujmption can be overcome based on a review of the whole record.

Interestingly, the Court of Appeals relied solely on the Plaintiff’s trial testimony that neither Defendant “did anything wrong.” Based on that, the Court of Appeals concluded it was highly unlikely that the trial court’s jury instruction on the burden of proof contributed to the verdict. 

It is unclear what other evidence the Plaintiff presented at trial, but it would seem there was likely other evidence that the Defendants did do something wrong . Specifically, two witnesses reported–at least in statements–that the bicyclist “caused the accident” (it is not stated whether they testified at trial). And then there was Defendant Stanley’s failure to maintain her lane when she had to slam on brakes and swerve out of the way to avoid hitting the cyclist. In short, it appears either the cyclist was negligent or the other driver was negligent. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals held that giving an erroneous definition of the burden of proof was not harmful. 


White v. Stanley is important for a few reasons. First, the most important aspect of it is its immediate holding: Georgia’s pattern jury charge on the preponderance of evidence standard is not correct. Therefore, it is error for a trial judge to give it. Going forward, juries should be provided with a simple instruction that states it simply means evidence that makes a fact “more likely true than not,” or something similar. 

Second, this case demonstrates that lawyers and judges should not always rely blindly on the pattern jury instructions. Changes in statutes, or new cases, may make it inappropriate to give certain jury charges. Lawyers should always evaluate each jury charge they ask the court to give and ask whether it correctly states the law, and whether it is confusing or misleading.

Learn more about The Champion Firm and the personal injury practice areas we cover here. If you’re an attorney seeking to refer a case or partner with us as co-counsel, learn more here.

Citation: White v. Stanley et al., No. A23A0986 (Ga. Ct. App. October 3, 2023)

About the Author

Darl Champion is an award-winning personal injury lawyer serving the greater Metro Atlanta area. He is passionate about ensuring his clients are fully compensated when they are harmed by someone’s negligence. Learn more about Darl here.