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Judicial Precedent

When the verdict in a trial is appealed, a specific point of law may be examined and interpreted by the appeals court. The appellate courts’ decisions are often published and become "judicial precedent." Lower courts and other appellate courts then apply the appeals courts’ interpretation so that a precedent is eventually created. By following another court’s interpretations of a law, consistency and predictability is ensured.

EXAMPLE: A statute might require a builder to use "reasonable safety standards" on the building site. If a lawsuit is filed claiming that reasonable safety standards were not used, the judge will review other cases that involved that statute to determine exactly what the "reasonable" standards are in the situation. A previous case may have held that requiring a builder to have his workers undergo medical examinations before employment was reasonable. If the builder in the present case did not provide medical exams, the judge can rule that the statute was violated because judicial precedent holds that the builder did not follow reasonable safety standards.

TIP: Parties involved in cases where judicial precedent is unfavorable to their claims try to distinguish their facts from the facts in the cases that produced the earlier decisions. For instance, in the builder example, the builder might claim that the workers gave him false medical documentation so it was reasonable for him to believe another exam was not necessary.