Dateline: September, 2008, Issue 1

Can jurors ignore a plaintiff's injury when deciding a defendant's recklessness?

Jurors are often presented with some negative outcome (e.g., an injured plaintiff), and are asked to assess whether that outcome was foreseeable or preventable. Can jurors disregard outcome information, or does this knowledge bias their decisions?

The research shows that jurors are unable to ignore the outcome information when reaching verdicts. Jurors "Monday-morning quarterback" and exhibit "20-20 hindsight."

Hastie and colleagues (1999) investigated whether jurors' punitive damage awards are influenced by "20-20 hindsight" by comparing jurors who knew that an accident occurred with jurors who didn't know an accident occurred. In this research, all jurors were given information about a hazardous stretch of train tracks and the potential causes of train accidents. Half the jurors additionally learned that a train derailed and toxic materials spilled into a nearby river causing damage to wildlife and property. All jurors had to decide if the railroad company was reckless for continuing train service over this stretch of tracks.

A typical "hindsight bias" occurred: Two-thirds of the jurors told about the train derailment thought continuing train service was reckless, while only one-third of the jurors not knowing about the specific derailment thought it was reckless to continue train service. Knowing about the specific accident made that accident more foreseeable, the train company more reckless, and punitive damages more justified.

Jurors "Monday morning quarterback" when awarding punitive damages. Knowing about an accident, makes the accident more foreseeable, a defendant more reckless, and punitive damages more likely.

Source Hastie, R., Schkade, D. A., & Payne, J.W. (1999). Juror judgments in civil cases. Hindsight effects on judgments of liability for punitive damages. Law and Human Behavior, 23, pp. 597-614.