Dateline: November, 2007, Issue 1

How do jurors perceive corporate defendants?

Corporate defendants preparing for trial face a hostile environment from jurors. Corporate defendants must battle not only the charges against them, but also jurors' negative attitudes about corporate America.

Vinson and Perlut (2003) report jury research conducted in actual cases, and describe jurors' attitudes that corporate defendants must overcome at trial.

First, corporate defendants must overcome jurors' attitudes of corporate dishonesty. Many jurors believe corporate America does not act ethically. When asked to agree or disagree that "Most big companies act morally and ethically," 67% of jurors disagree. Jurors also question the honesty of business executives. While only 18% of jurors disagree that "Most people are honest and trustworthy," a much larger 40% disagree that "Most business executives are honest and trustworthy." To succeed at trial, corporate America must overcome jurors' perceptions that corporate America acts dishonestly.

Second, corporate defendants must overcome jurors' attitudes that they act only in self-interest and for financial gain. Two-thirds of jurors believe that "A big company will break a contract if it thinks it can get away with it" and that "Companies often break contracts because there is some financial gain to be made." To succeed at trial, corporate defendants must overcome jurors' perceptions that corporate America's motive is at odds with acting ethically, legally and/or for the good of others.

Third, corporate defendants must overcome punitiveness in jurors' attitudes. Half of all jurors agree that "When a company's product causes injuries to people, the company should be severely punished in addition to paying for these people's suffering." To succeed at trial, corporate defendants must overcome jurors' willingness to punish as well as compensate.

Fourth, corporate defendants must overcome jurors' attitudes reversing the legal burden of proof. Jurors believe that a company that is sued probably has done something wrong. Only 24% of jurors disagree that "If a company is being sued by many different people in many different states for the same thing, it has probably done something wrong."

One of the most robust findings from this research is that general anti-corporate views (not specific to business or industry) can distinguish jurors likely to side with the plaintiff from jurors likely to side with the defense. Jurors who strongly believe corporate America is dishonest and only profit driven, and who believe corporations should prove they did nothing wrong or be punished, are jurors likely to side with the plaintiff. While jury selection is useful for reducing the intensity of anti-corporate attitudes, to succeed at trial, corporate defendants must also address deep-seated and widespread suspicions of corporate America.

Source Vinson, D. E., & Perlut, D. (2003). The American jury's view of corporate America: It's not a pretty picture. Washington, D.C. : National Legal Center for the Public Interest.