Dateline: February, 2022, Issue 2

How do gruesome photographs affect liability verdicts?

In civil cases, attorneys often show jurors gruesome images of a plaintiff's injuries. Photographs are often presented not only to describe and inform jurors of injuries, but also to arouse emotions in jurors of sympathy, disgust, fear, anger and sadness.

Research has shown that liability decisions are affected by viewing gruesome photographs. For example, one study found that viewing photographs of a girl who had been hit by a car and suffered a bleeding head wound significantly increased liability verdicts relative to those who learned the details about the injury but did not see the photographs (Bright & Goodman-Delahunty, 2011).

Salerno and Phalen (2020) explored how feelings of disgust from viewing a gruesome photograph of an injury affect jurors' verdicts of liability and their perception of case evidence and arguments unrelated to the plaintiff's injury. All mock jurors were presented a case summary based on a real case that included opening statements, testimony from five plaintiff witnesses, testimony from three defense witnesses, and closing arguments. The case concerned a plaintiff who lost a leg in a car accident and was suing the manufacturer of the guardrail that speared and severed the plaintiff's leg. All mock jurors saw neutral (non-gruesome, non-emotional) photographs of the plaintiff's car and the guardrail from before the car accident. During the presentation of the case, one-third of the mock jurors multiple times were presented a gruesome color photograph of medical professionals working on the plaintiff's severed leg on a table; one-third of the mock jurors saw a black-and-white version of that same photograph; and one-third of the mock jurors saw no photograph of medical professionals working on the plaintiff's severed leg. After viewing the trial evidence, mock jurors read pattern civil jury instructions, assessed evidence and arguments in the case unrelated to the plaintiff's injury, made decisions about liability and damages, and reported their emotional reactions to the case.

Jurors who saw the gruesome photograph of the severed leg, regardless if black-and-white or in color, reported feeling more disgust about the case. Jurors' increased feelings of disgust, in turn, were associated with an increased likelihood of finding the defendant liable.

Feeling disgust in response to the gruesome photograph also led mock jurors both to (a) increase agreement with the plaintiff's evidence and arguments that were unrelated to the plaintiff's injury, and (b) decrease agreement with the defendant's arguments unrelated to the plaintiff's injury. These prejudicial assessments of unrelated case evidence and arguments resulting from feelings of disgust after viewing a gruesome photograph also were associated with an increased likelihood of holding the defendant liable.

The researchers had hypothesized that presenting the gruesome photograph in black-and-white might reduce or eliminate some of the effects that jurors' feelings of disgust might have on liability verdicts or on the assessment of each side's unrelated evidence and arguments. This hypothesis was not supported. Mock jurors presented the black-and-white photograph responded similarly to those presented the color photograph.

The gruesome photograph only increased jurors' feelings of disgust, and did not affect jurors' feelings of anger, fear, sadness or sympathy. While only disgust was aroused by the gruesome photograph, these other emotions were still related to jurors' verdicts. Anger, fear, sadness and sympathy each affected the likelihood of finding the defendant liable.

Gruesome photographs can arouse feelings of disgust in jurors which, in turn, make a defendant more likely to be held liable for a plaintiff's injury. A gruesome photograph that elicits disgust also can instigate a prejudicial assessment of unrelated case evidence and arguments, which independently increases the likelihood of jurors finding a defendant liable. A black-and-white photograph does not diminish the prejudicial effects of gruesome color photographs. Jurors emotions generally -- be they disgust, sympathy, fear, anger or sadness -- affect jurors' verdicts. The researchers conclude that gruesome photographs can be prejudicial and jurors' emotions influential on verdicts.

Source Bright, D.A. & Goodman-Delahunty, J. (2011). Mock juror decision making in a civil negligence trial: The impact of gruesome evidence, injury severity, and information processing route. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 18(3), pp. 439-459.

Source Salerno, J.M. & Phalen, H.J. (2020). The impact of gruesome photographs on mock jurors' emotional responses and decision making in a civil case. DePaul Law Review, 69(2), pp. 633-656.