What Are Juries Thinking?
We read into the notes that they send out during deliberations. We look for significance in their choice of testimony to be read back. We construct detailed jury interrogatories with elaborate directions (“If you answer yes, proceed to question 3. If you answer no, cease deliberations and return your verdict.”) and then pore over the results. We would love to talk to them after the verdict but can’t in New Jersey. All along we keep asking the same question: What is the jury thinking?
What they’re likely thinking may surprise you. According to a juror outlook survey conducted by the National Law Journal and Decision Quest, one consistent theme emerged: jurors don’t trust any of the parties to a lawsuit, plaintiff or defendant.
The survey was conducted by questioning over the telephone 1,012 adults scientifically selected and weighted to fairly represent the American population. Though actual jury demographics vary from venue to venue, the group polled was chosen to reflect as representative a national jury pool as possible. The results showed equally cynical views toward plaintiffs as well as defendants in product liability suits.
In regard to plaintiffs, 84% of those polled agreed with the statement “When people are injured, they often try to blame others for their carelessness.” More than 60% believed that there should be limits on the punitive damages that corporations are forced to pay. 73% believed that lawsuits have increased the cost of products. 91% believed that lawsuits have increased the cost of insurance.
Based upon these results, potential jurors seem inclined to believe that plaintiffs need to more often accept personal responsibility for their own actions instead of blaming others and that the monetary demands that plaintiffs make upon defendants and the resulting financial drains are excessive and disproportionate. While this is good news for product liability defendants, as is often the case there is bad news which goes with it in which product liability plaintiffs can take solace.
Of the potential jurors surveyed, 78% agreed with the statement that “Executives of big companies often try to cover up the harm they do.” 45% believed that product warnings are intended to protect the manufacturer from being sued. Only 31% believed product warnings were actually intended to keep consumers safe. Only 46% always read product warnings anyway.
Two-thirds believe that lawsuits against product manufacturers have made products safer. Nearly half said they would sue if injured in an accident or by a product. 22% did not feel they could be fair and impartial in a case involving a tobacco company, 16% if the case involved a breast implant manufacturer and 14% if the defendant was an asbestos manufacturer.
Nearly three-quarters believed that juries were usually successful in doing what’s right. More than three-quarters believed that jurors should do what they think is the right thing, regardless of whatever the judge may have instructed them the law is.
Lest the parties feel slighted or singled out, another poll by the Gallop organization reported that only 14% of those surveyed rated lawyers as “high” or “very high” in honesty and ethical standards. 33% of the people surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago had very little or no confidence in the legal system.
What to make of all this? A few lessons can be learned, ones that every good trial lawyer should have known long before any of these surveys. Establishing credibility before a jury is critical. Losing it can be fatal. That goes for the lawyers as well as the parties. Presenting and emphasizing the righteous aspects of one’s cause without overstating, best done in contrast to the injustice of the adversary’s actions and position, will be far more persuasive and yield infinitely better results than time spent arguing over the careful wording of a jury charge.