Dateline: July, 2011, Issue 1

How does litigants' race influence verdicts in sexual harassment cases?

Jurors' verdicts in sexual harassment cases are usually studied absent any consideration of the race of the plaintiff and defendant.

Bothwell and colleagues (2006) examined discrimination against Black plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases, to determine whether White jurors are more inclined to attribute what happened to a plaintiff's ignorance or carelessness, rather than to defendant misbehavior.

In the research, 186 prospective jurors made individual decisions regarding liability and damages before and after deliberating in 56 juries on a case of sexual harassment. The case presented to jurors involved allegations by the plaintiff of being invited into the hotel room of a supervisor for drinks and then coerced into sexual activity. The case was presented to various groups of jurors with photographs of either a Black or a White supervisor and either a Black or a White plaintiff.

In their individual decisions, White jurors attributed more fault to the plaintiff when the defendant was Black, and awarded substantially lower damages (33% less) for both White and Black plaintiffs who accepted an offer to meet for drinks in a Black supervisor's room than for plaintiffs who accepted the same offer from a White supervisor. The researchers hypothesize that many White jurors thought that the plaintiff should have known better than to go to the Black defendant's hotel room.

In their individual decisions, White jurors also awarded lower damages to Black plaintiffs than to White plaintiffs, regardless of the race of the defendant.

Interestingly, the racial biases evidenced in White jurors' individual decision-making did not carry over into the decisions made by these same jurors when deliberating in juries, despite Whites comprising 70% of the jurors who participated in the research.

The researchers concluded that group dynamics can wash out certain types of racial biases in the complex task of coming to agreement on an appropriate award.

Source Bothwell, R.K., Pigott, M.A., Foley, L.A., & McFatter, R. M. (2006). Racial bias in juridic judgment at private and public levels. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, pp. 2134-2149.