Juror Attitudes in the
Age of the Coronavirus:
Economic and Social Impact
The data referenced in this article was collected in March 2020 as part of our 2020 Juror Attitudes in the Age of the Coronavirus survey. This article should be reviewed in conjunction with our Overview article. For a copy, please contact [email protected]. The statements, opinions and results listed in this document may change as the landscape caused by the pandemic evolves.
The COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a devastating blow to the economy, businesses, workers and prospective jurors. While states are starting to lift stay-at-home orders, there is still restricted access to restaurant dining, theaters, concert halls, retail stores and other non-essential businesses where large groups of people risk coming into close contact with one another. Public health officials have advised people to remain at home as much as possible and avoid close contact with people outside of their home. This article focuses on how the economic and social impacts of the pandemic will likely affect juror attitudes and decision making in civil lawsuits by comparing data from our 2020 Juror Attitudes in the Age of the Coronavirus survey to data from our National Survey during the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
These unprecedented times are causing economic ripple effects and financial hardship across the country as millions of Americans unexpectedly find themselves out of work, furloughed or with reduced hours or pay. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in April 2020, the national unemployment rate rose to 15% with 20.5 million people unemployed. Employment fell in all major industry sectors: leisure and hospitality, education, health, professional and business services, retail trade, manufacturing, entertainment, construction, government and transporting and warehousing. The number of people filing for unemployment continued to increase through the first half of May 2020 (when this article was written), reaching an estimated 26 million Americans. Additionally, many Americans have altered their spending habits and anticipate cutting back on spending. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that some are struggling to pay bills while others are saving as much as they can due to concerns that they or their significant other will lose their job in the near future.
While it is still too early to know the full extent of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these indicators suggest that there will be large economic repercussions for the United States and the global economy. Looking forward to jury trials once they resume, how will the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic affect juror attitudes and decisions in civil lawsuits in the United States?
Looking back at previous financial crises, we can assess what we know. Researchers who have studied litigation and macroeconomics have observed that there is a relationship between challenging economic times, such as rising unemployment, inflation and interest rates and an increase in legal proceedings. The types of proceedings that increase with increased economic troubles include: bankruptcy filings, contract actions, personal injury claims, employment lawsuits, product liability lawsuits and securities class actions. From our previous research, DecisionQuest has found that jurors severely impacted by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 are more inclined to hold certain attitudes and tend to render decisions in favor of plaintiffs for certain types of cases.
DecisionQuest collected survey data during this COVID-19 crisis and compared it to data collected in our past research to identify shifts in litigation-relevant attitudes amongst jury-eligible respondents. We also examined attitudinal and demographic differences that may predict jurors’ verdict preferences. Respondents were presented with case scenarios and asked to render decisions on three case types: a product matter (mesothelioma), a personal injury claim (talc) and a labor and employment case (potential discrimination and harassment).
Key Findings on the Economic and Social Impact
From this March 2020 survey, nearly one-third (32%) of respondents indicated they, or their significant other, had lost their job because of the Novel Coronavirus. Unfortunately, this percentage has likely increased over the months of April and May, as more Americans filed for unemployment.
We also found that most (80%) respondents in this survey indicated that they or their family were, to some degree, impacted by the last financial crisis of 2008-2009, with 46% having been “badly” hurt and 15% being “very badly” hurt. A deep dive analysis of this experiential characteristic, their experience with the previous financial crisis, revealed several interesting findings, which are reported here.
How badly were you and your family hurt by the financial crisis of 2008-2009?
A statistical analysis of the data from our March 2020 survey found that 15% of respondents who said they, or their family, were “very hurt” by the financial crisis of 2008 2009 differed, significantly, from all other respondents. This group of respondents had an overall distinct perspective of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic relative to all other respondents in the following ways:
- They were more inclined to believe the seriousness of the Coronavirus is exaggerated rather than accurate or underestimated.
- They had greater confidence in the government’s ability to control the Coronavirus pandemic.
- They had greater confidence in their own ability to control how the Coronavirus will affect their life.
- They were more inclined to report living normally, coming and going as usual rather than being cautious when they go out, only going when they absolutely must, or not leaving home at all.
These results indicate that respondents who were severely impacted by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 seem to be more optimistic about the impact of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. This was an unexpected finding that begs the question, “why?” while the data does not provide an obvious answer, my interpretation of the data and experience leads me to conclude that a plausible explanation is that through their experience with the previous financial crisis, they developed or strengthened their resilience. The adverse life event of truly struggling through the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and moving forward through those difficult times has perhaps strengthened their resilience, making them more positive toward new life challenges such as a pandemic.
Now, focusing on implications for civil jury trials, those who reported they, or their family, were “very hurt” by the previous financial crisis expressed significantly different views than all the other respondents on several issues related to insurance companies, sexual harassment and litigation damages. This group of respondents, in comparison to all other respondents, were more likely to:
- Have experienced property damage from a natural disaster and hold strong negative opinions about insurance companies.
- Believe that corporate America has done an “excellent” or “good” job of reducing sexual harassment in the workplace, however a proportionately larger percentage of them in comparison to the other respondents also “strongly agreed” that women who claim that they were sexually harassed often provoke the behavior.
- Believe that damages awarded in lawsuits are too high, but were divided in their views on whether awarding punitive damages against large corporations is the best way to get them to behave more responsibly
These results indicate that respondents who were severely impacted by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 hold certain views that may influence the way in which they perceive parties to litigation or case relevant issues. Furthermore, these results demonstrate that a serious negative life event can have a long-lasting impact on prospective jurors.
Given the historical data on how high unemployment and previous financial crises impact the filing and findings of lawsuits, and our results from this survey, it seems highly likely that those most severely impacted by the pandemic will hold certain attitudes, beliefs or values that will affect their evaluation of the parties to litigation in the future. Moreover, this crisis is more than an economic crisis like in 2008-2009; it is fundamentally a health crisis. With this perfect storm of hardship, this crisis may influence jurors’ worldviews in a very profound way. What this means for juror decision making and trial outcomes is yet to be seen, but the possible consequence for future jury trials will likely be significant.
DecisionQuest will continue to monitor the impact of the crisis to understand juror decision making in this changing landscape. If you have questions about our survey and want to discuss how the Novel Coronavirus may impact your upcoming jury trial, please contact [email protected].
Stay safe, stay healthy and keep a positive outlook.
About the Author:
Dr. Kelloir Smith is a Senior Consultant based in the Los Angeles office of DecisionQuest. With nearly twenty years of jury research and consulting practice, she has worked on hundreds of mock trials, online jury studies and trials across the country. Dr. Smith has extensive experience with a wide range of complex commercial litigation and white collar defense. She has assisted hundreds of trial attorneys with developing persuasive messaging, theme development, witness preparation and jury selection on a variety of cases nationally. Feel free to contact Dr. Smith. She can be reached via email: [email protected].
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