Reptilian theory or “the Reptile Theory” is a legal strategy that plaintiffs’ attorneys use to call on the most primal – or reptilian – part of jury members’ minds. Attorneys using reptilian theory use facts to provoke feelings of danger, then suggest ruling against the defendant as a way to eliminate the danger.
If jury members feel like they are keeping themselves and their loved ones safe by holding a defendant accountable for dangerous or unsafe conditions, they are more likely to do so. That being said, defense attorneys can interrupt these primal signals and bring the case back to what really matters – negligence and the duty of care.
Keep reading to get a better understanding of the Reptile Theory. If you don’t have time to read our whole blog, watch Attorney Chris Begeman explain reptilian theory in a 2-minute video (opens a new window).
Where Lawyers Use Reptilian Theory
The use of reptilian theory is common in trucking and transportation cases. In these cases, the question is not whether truck drivers and shipping companies operated as safely as possible but whether they behaved in a way that a reasonable person would not.
For example, taking a sip of water on the road is not the safest course of action, but most reasonable people will drink from a water bottle if they get thirsty while driving. If a truck driver causes an accident while drinking water, a lawyer using reptilian theory would highlight the fact that any kind of distracted driving is unsafe rather than try to convince the jury that the truck driver violated their duty of care toward others on the road.
By drawing attention to safety, this attorney would be activating our “lizard brains,” which instinctively prioritize survival and say no to unsafe situations.
Identifying and Responding to Reptilian Theory
If a plaintiffs’ attorney gets away with using reptilian theory, you (as the defendant) are unlikely to win your case. Still, your attorney can identify the Reptile Theory long before stepping into the courtroom. According to Lexis Nexis, “Attorneys who practice the Reptile Theory try to establish safety rules from the outset of litigation.” They might try to get witnesses to admit to safety violations during depositions and focus on rules, rule-breaking, and safety during trials.
By arguing that these safety rules are designed to protect the public – and the jurors as part of the public – these lawyers activate the juror’s survival instincts and get a ruling in their favor.
Fortunately, defense attorneys can counteract the reptilian theory by keeping “Reptile-friendly evidence” out of court, shutting down hypothetical questions, and even using motions in limine (conversations outside the presence of the jury) to exclude certain strategies in the courtroom. For instance, most courts don’t allow lawyers to bring up the “golden rule” or encourage jurors to imagine themselves in the same situation as the plaintiff during trial.
Even if the court allows more subtle reptilian strategies, defense attorneys can explain the plaintiffs’ tactics during opening or closing statements and appeal to the more logical part of jurors’ minds. People don’t like to be manipulated, so pointing out manipulation could be the key to victory in a defendant’s case.
Attorneys Who Understand
At Righi Fitch Law Group, we are extremely aware of the Reptilian Theory and can identify these tactics as soon as they emerge. Better yet, we know how to use objections and other tools to stop these manipulative strategies in their tracks.
When you become the defendant in a lawsuit, you need the jury to be on your side.
We can help with that.