Has the pandemic affected juror attitudes and perspectives? Research suggests the answer is yes. Read on to learn how the pandemic shifted jury verdicts.
As we continue forging through the pandemic, many attorneys have begun questioning how the pandemic may have impacted juror attitudes and perspectives. From mental and financial stress to shifting dynamics and increasing division in beliefs and systems of power – the pandemic profoundly affected us all.
So if you’re wondering whether the pandemic has shifted juror mindsets and could prompt different verdicts, you’re right to wonder. Surveys conducted by DecisionQuest and Courtroom Sciences of over 1250 potential jury members confirm distinct differences in juror dynamics that could prove significant at trial.
1. People may respect rule-followers and authority more.
Many people surveyed showed an increased adherence to rules and appreciation for authority and rule-followers. This is especially true for individuals having concerns over the virus. In trials, jurors may be harsher on corporate defendants they feel broke clear rules.
2. Jurors may be more likely to find in favor of the plaintiff, award higher damages, or generally have pro-plaintiff attitudes.
DecisionQuest found the most important variables influencing verdict decisions were individuals’ level of concern about COVID and how much the pandemic had disrupted their lives.
“Pro-plaintiff attitudes” increased significantly, particularly among people who:
(a) experienced significant disruption due to the pandemic,
(b) contracted the virus or knew someone who contracted the virus,
(c) expressed greater concern about contracting the virus, and
(d) expressed worry about their health should they sit on a jury.
Additionally, surveys suggest increased sympathy and support amongst jurors for people who’ve suffered economic losses, and small businesses.
3. Jurors may show increased deference for healthcare and frontline workers.
Doctors, nurses, healthcare workers – they’ve been the heroes of the pandemic. For this reason, many jurors, regardless of ideology, show increased respect and empathy for frontline workers. This could make medical malpractice cases more challenging for attorneys, as people generally consider healthcare workers as heroes. This shift in perspective has been casually called the “Dr. Fauci effect,” named after Dr. Fauci for the trustworthy, straightforward, and compassionate face he brings to healthcare workers.
4. Increased adherence to belief systems could mean more polarized or less diverse juries.
In times of hardship and chaos, many find comfort and strength in holding close to the belief systems that make them feel safe. Surveys confirm that jurors may show stronger distrust or trust in the government and stronger trust or distrust of science. The way an individual leans often relates to their personal and political beliefs.
5. Limited jury pool doesn’t represent the community and lacks socioeconomic and racial diversity.
The strains placed on many by the pandemic have led to limited jury pools that could impact verdicts and damages.
Affected populations who might be missing from jury pools include:
· Parents unable to afford childcare
· Parents who are now acting as their child’s teacher and homeschooling
· Elderly individuals considered at high risk
· People without access to high-speed internet and/or computers
For this reason, attorneys should note that juries may have different makeups today than past selections. These new jury makeups may or may not align with previous verdicts.
6. Increased mental and financial stress could lead to rushed decisions.
Whether financial, mental, or physical stress, the pandemic has not been easy on anyone. For many, this increased stress could lead to fractured focus, quick-setting fatigue, and understandable irritability.
During trial, jurors fearing contagion want to get home, so attorneys who make the jury stay extra hours could become the target of resentment and lead to an unfavorable opinion of the attorney and their client. Additionally, the fatigue and stress many people are feeling can also lead to jurors missing or not focusing on key arguments and evidence, relying on intuition and observations instead.
7. Social distancing protocols like masks make it harder to read facial expressions and non-verbal cues.
While they preserve our health and safety, social distancing protocols can profoundly impact trial verdicts.
The trouble begins with jury selection. Attorneys typically rely on nonverbal cues, posture, body movements, gaze patterns, and facial expressions to assess a juror’s qualifications for the case. With face masks, those cues become harder to assess, making jury selection more challenging and at times a gamble.
Likewise, masks and distance prevent jury members from reading critical facial expressions and body language cues from witnesses and defendants. In the past, these cues proved helpful in a juror’s perceptions and determination of their verdict. Now that these cues are limited, jurors need to pay keen attention to testimony to make sound judgments.
8. Trials held on digital platforms can lead to unfocused jurors that miss key elements.
Attending a trial from home via digital platforms may be convenient, but that convenience comes at a cost. Commonly referred to as “Zoom fatigue,” video conferencing may prompt jurors to unconsciously dehumanize defendants, making it difficult to host a fair trial.
Additionally, people’s home environments tend to import a lack of seriousness and solemnity present during digital trials that can lead to reduced focus and commitment. In fact, during one remote civil jury trial, a jury member actually stepped away to take a call. Another instance reported by the American Bar Association Journal found potential jury members sleeping, exercising, or doing other activities during jury selection. It’s fair to say that trials held on digital platforms can lead to a number of variables that cause considerable concern in ensuring a fair trial.
At the end of the day, attorneys should expect past precedents and typical jury makeup to look different in today’s juries. As the pandemic wears on, it’s important for attorneys to recognize these shifts so you can adapt your strategies accordingly and come out with your desired verdicts.