Dateline: December, 2007, Issue 6

How does pretrial publicity affect civil jury verdicts?

Unlike criminal cases where pretrial publicity is usually about the defendant (rather than the prosecutor), pretrial publicity in civil cases might be about either the defendant or the plaintiff.

Borstein and colleagues (2002) explored the effects of pretrial publicity in a personal injury case concerning the leakage of a chemical from a chemical manufacturing company. The primary issue in the case was causality, and jurors were asked to render liability verdicts. Before hearing the case, one group of jurors read prejudicial publicity about the plaintiff, another group of jurors read prejudicial publicity about the defendant, and a third group of jurors were not exposed to publicity about either party.

Pretrial publicity influenced liability verdicts. Jurors exposed to prejudicial pretrial publicity about the plaintiff were half as likely to render a verdict in favor of the plaintiff as jurors exposed to no pretrial publicity (25% to 46%). Jurors exposed to prejudicial pretrial publicity about the defendant were 1.5 times more likely to render a verdict in favor of the plaintiff as jurors exposed to no pretrial publicity (75% to 46%).

Judicial admonishment to ignore pretrial publicity did not eliminate the effect of pretrial publicity on jurors' verdicts. However, jurors given the admonition both before and after presentation of the trial evidence viewed the defendant as less culpable than jurors given the admonition after the trial only or not at all.

Pretrial publicity can prejudice jurors' judgments of liability in civil cases. Judicial admonishments can reduce, though not eliminate, the biasing effect of pretrial publicity if given both before and after presentation of the trial evidence.

Source Bornstein, B. H., Whisenhunt, B. L., Nemeth, R. J., & Dunaway, D. L. (2002). Pretrial publicity and civil cases: A two-way street? Law and Human Behavior, 26, pp. 3-17.