Dateline: July, 2022, Issue 3

Are defendants more often found liable with general or special verdict forms?

Using a general versus specific verdict form can affect the liability decision made by a jury.

Research Study 1

Schmidt and Diamond (1998) examined the effect of verdict forms on liability judgments in a products liability case.

Jurors given a general verdict form were nearly twice as likely to favor the plaintiff as those with the special verdict form.

Research Study 2

Wiggins and Breckler (1990) examined the effect of verdict forms on liability decisions in a defamation case. The general verdict form asked jurors to find for the plaintiff or the defendant. The special verdict form asked jurors to answer several questions about the case (e.g., Did the plaintiff prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant made a defamatory statement about her? Did the plaintiff prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defamatory statement injured her?, etc.).

Jurors given the general verdict form made similar liability decisions as jurors given the special verdict form. Interestingly, compared to jurors who provided only a general verdict, jurors rendering a special verdict showed both less confidence in their judgment and better comprehension of legal instructions on burden of proof.

Research Study 3

Burd (2018) explored how liability decisions are influenced by both the type of verdict form used and the necessity to justify the liability verdict in a defamation case.

Mock jurors read a brief case summary and judicial instructions, and were provided one of four verdict forms: (1) a general verdict form, (2) a verdict form where jurors were asked to provide reasons for their liability decision before rendering a general verdict, (3) a verdict form where jurors were asked to provide reasons for their liability decision after rendering a general verdict, or (4) a special verdict form. The special verdict form had 4 yes/no questions. The general verdict forms requesting reasons asked two questions: What legal and factual reasons may justify finding for the Plaintiff in this case? What legal and factual reasons may justify finding for the Defendant in this case?

Jurors were significantly more likely to find for the defendant when utilizing a special verdict form than a general verdict form. Verdict forms requesting reasons for the rendering of a general liability verdict did not affect liability determinations in that jurors’ liability decisions were remarkably similar for all three general verdict forms.

Conclusion

While the type of verdict form used in a civil case does not always affect a jury's liability decision, a general verdict form has the potential to advantage the plaintiff while a special verdict form has the potential to advantage the defendant.

SourceBurd, K.A. (2018). When and Where Do Biases Emerge? Memory and Decision Making Across Legal Contexts. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Human Development, Cornell University.

SourceSchmidt, E. & Diamond, S. (1998). Controlling the jury by structuring the jury's task. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychology-Law Society, Redondo Beach, CA.

SourceWiggins, E. & Breckler, S. (1990). Special verdicts as guides to decision making. Law and Psychology Review, 14, pp. 1-41.