The “Reptile Theory” is a trial strategy that attempts to use fear and anger to make the jury dislike the defendant so strongly they will award a plaintiff a grossly excessive amount of damages. The plaintiff’s attorney will seek to activate the jurors’ “survival mode” instincts by presenting the defendant’s conduct as highly dangerous and worthy of punishment. The defendant’s conduct will be portrayed as a threat to the safety of the general public, and the award as a deterrent needed to protect the community at large. The Reptile Theory appeals to the jurors’ emotions in place of any rational, impartial evaluation of the evidence.
The term “Reptile Theory” originated in the writings of nuero-physiologist Paul D. MacLean in the 1950s, who suggested that one major part of the brain consisted of a “reptilian complex” that controlled instinctive behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, and territoriality. Then in the 2009 publication “Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution” by David Ball and Don Keenan, the authors first described the “Reptile Theory” in the context of litigation. Since then it has become a hot topic in litigation as defense counsel develop methods to combat “Reptile” tactics resulting in runaway jury awards.