What is an example of a law school case brief template?
Here, we’ll provide you with a proposed case brief template as an example of how you might organize your own. We’ll then show you how this template would work in the context of a real case that you could be assigned in your first year of law school. Below, we provide you with more information on what to include in this template. Let’s start with the template.
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A case brief template: a sample for law students
Name of case
Start by saying the name of the case at the top of your case brief—for example, Smith v. Jones.
Identify the parties. Who is the plaintiff? The defendant? Once you identify who’s who, you might want to abbreviate the parties as “P” and “D.”
Identify the procedural posture of the case. Are we at the trial or appellate level? State or federal court? At which stage in the litigation was the case in when the issue arose?
Identify the legal issue that the opinion is addressing. Often, the cases assigned in a casebook are shorter excerpts of a much longer opinion, so the issue will be apparent. Be mindful of where in the casebook a particular case is being presented—i.e., if the case appears in a section on negligence in tort law, even if the court also mentions causation or damages, there’s a good chance the main issue will be negligence.
Briefly summarize the relevant facts of the case. The keyword here is relevant. An opinion will often include several extraneous facts that are not directly relevant to the court’s analysis. Feel free to add some irrelevant facts if they are necessary to understand what happened, but don’t get too carried away. For example, if a Torts case involves a motor vehicle accident, don’t get hung up on the color or make and model of the car unless the court makes clear that those facts are relevant in some way. On the other hand, you’ll surely want to include, for example, any information about whether a driver was distracted or trying to avoid an obstacle in the road. In other words, focus on legally significant facts. If you find yourself struggling with this, don’t worry! You will get better as time goes on!
Identify the rule of law that the court applied. This may be straightforward when, for example, the court applies a well-established negligence rule such as the reasonable person standard. On the other hand, this may be a bit more complex when the court fashions a new rule. For example, the court might be deciding an issue of first impression and have to decide whether an individual should be considered negligent simply for violating a statute—regardless of whether that violation was reasonable. Or, for example, the court might be applying a well-established rule to a novel factual scenario, and the mere application of the rule to that novel factual scenario creates, in effect, a new rule.
This is where you need to describe the court’s reasoning. If the court applied a well-established rule, explain how the court applied that rule to the facts. Which facts were most relevant? Which were insignificant? If the court fashioned a new rule, on the other hand, explain how the court developed the rule and why it chose to do so.
This is the court’s legal conclusion. For example, did the court hold that the defendant was negligent under a particular set of facts? The holding can be thought of as the product of the rule of law and the analysis. Be careful not to confuse the holding with the court’s judgment, which we’ll discuss below.
This is where you should describe the court’s ultimate disposition of the case. Did the court grant or deny a motion? Affirm or reverse a lower court? The judgment can usually be just a few words at the end of your case brief.
If the court provides any public policy reasons for its adoption of a new rule—or its application of an old rule to a novel situation—you may want to briefly note those reasons here. Put simply, policy usually consists of the court explaining the purpose of a rule and its application to a particular factual situation.
Sometimes the court provides an extended discussion of an issue that is not necessary to reach the holding. This is known as “dicta.” And although it might provide insight into how the court will address similar situations in the future, it is not considered essential to the court’s holding and thus is not binding law. Of course, lawyers (and judges) may disagree about just what constitutes dicta and what doesn’t, but in any event, if you think the court provides useful dicta, it may be worth jotting down a brief sentence or two.
Not every case has a dissenting opinion, but if your casebook includes one, it’s not an accident. Oftentimes, a dissent can be just as important as a majority opinion, especially if it highlights a major disagreement in the law or points out significant gaps in the majority’s reasoning. Further, there’s a good chance that your professor will want to discuss it. In short, jotting down one or two sentences about the dissent’s point of view will get you thinking about the case from a different perspective and will make you even more prepared for class discussions.
Sample of a case brief
Now that you’ve seen how a brief should be organized, let’s apply the above template to one of the most famous cases that you’ll study in your first year of law school: Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. (248 NY3d 339 ). This case was decided by the New York Court of Appeals in 1928, and the author of the majority opinion is Benjamin Cardozo—a prolific jurist who later went on to serve as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co.
Helen Palsgraf is the plaintiff (P) and Long Island Railroad is the defendant (D).
The jury found for P in a negligence suit. D appealed. The appellate division affirmed, 3-2. D appealed to the court of appeals.
Is D liable for causing P’s injuries? More specifically, did D owe a duty to P rendering D liable to P for the conduct of the guards?
Two men were running on a train platform to catch a train. One of the men was carrying a package and seemed unsteady. A guard on one of the train cars reached out to help the man, and a guard on the train platform—who was also trying to help—pushed the man from behind. In the process, the man lost his grip on the package and it fell onto the rails. The package was small and appeared unremarkable, but it contained fireworks and exploded when it fell. The shock of the explosion threw down multiple scales at the other end of the platform. One of the scales struck P, causing injury.
A D owes a duty to a P when the “orbit” of danger to P is reasonably foreseeable—i.e., a danger that would be foreseen by the “eye of reasonable vigilance.”
Negligence is based on the relationship between the parties. The relationship between P and D is expressed by a duty that D owes to P. Unless D violates that duty, there is no negligence. In short, there must first be a duty relationship between P and D in order for there to be any possibility of finding D negligent. The duty that D owes to P extends as far as the eye of reasonable vigilance would reasonably foresee a danger to P. If a P can pass through this rigorous test of negligence at the front end, a D is liable for all consequences of his actions.
Here, the danger to P was not reasonably foreseeable by the eye of reasonable vigilance, so D did not owe a duty to P. D owed a duty to the man who was running to catch the train, and the conduct of the guard invaded the man’s property interest, but P cannot sue to vindicate this interest. However, P could potentially sue the man with the package containing fireworks.
Under these facts, D did not owe a duty to P and was therefore not liable to P for her injuries.
The decision of the appellate division is reversed.
If railroads could be held liable for this type of situation, they would be forced to raise ticket prices, etc. Further, it would be impractical for a railroad to check every package in order to guard against this type of danger.
The issue of whether a duty exists is a question of law for a court to decide, but if it is unclear whether a danger to a prospective P was within the orbit of reasonably foreseeable harm, then the court should send the case to the jury.
Judge Andrews argued that the question of duty should focus on the relationship between a D and society, not a D and a particular P. If a D acts unreasonably, he is liable to anyone who is injured as a result, regardless of whether the injured P is in the zone of reasonably foreseeable danger. Even if no reasonably foreseeable harm results from a D’s actions, he is still liable because negligence itself is unreasonable. Contrary to Judge Cardozo’s approach of making the negligence test rigorous at the front end by limiting the definition of duty, Judge Andrews would use proximate cause in a policy-oriented way to limit liability at the back end. In other words, courts should employ proximate cause to draw a line where the law declines to further trace a series of events due to social policy considerations.
So, there you have it. You’ll notice that in the above sample, the outline of the dissenting opinion was a bit longer. This is because Palsgraf involves such a stark difference of opinion and reasoning between the majority and dissent. Other than this, the above sample is a pretty standard case brief. You should now feel prepared to tackle a case brief of your own!
Go to the next topic, Why shouldn’t I brief cases in law school?
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