By Melissa M. Gomez
Special to the Legal
In a trucking accident case, there was no question about who caused the collision. A tractor-trailer changed lanes and the truck driver didn’t see a passenger car in his blind spot. He hit the back corner of the car and sent it spinning into a guardrail. So, what caused the accident wasn’t an issue in this case. But the damages certainly were.
In this case, the plaintiff walked away from the accident, refusing medical treatment on the scene. She later claimed that she had sustained a severe head trauma and was rendered almost completely disabled. The defendant trucking company disagreed.
I have seen several cases like this in which the cause of an incident is clear, but what the damages are and, especially, what they are worth, are not. In these cases, we often conduct mock trials with surrogate jurors to see how members of the community perceive and value the case. Interestingly, in my experience watching these mock (and real) trials, I have found a central truth that should be considered: Damage awards are generally higher in cases where the defense admits liability than they are when the defense does not, even in those cases in which liability is clear.
It seems counterintuitive. At least it did to me at first. Wouldn’t jurors have more respect for a defendant who owned up to his or her responsibility, especially if that defendant were a company? Wouldn’t a defendant taking proper responsibility for a mistake abate the juror emotion that can serve to increase damages? One would think.
What I have seen in this and other cases is that when jurors only talk about damages and injuries, emotions often run high and damages can skyrocket. When liability is contested, though, jurors are forced to discuss the defendant, becoming more thoughtful of the defense perspective and, perhaps, sympathetic toward said defendant, even with the knowledge that he or she did something wrong.
While this phenomenon is typically stronger when the defendant is an individual, it also applies to corporations. After all, the actions of a corporate defendant are the actions of the individuals within it.
Take our trucking matter, for instance. While the defendant was the trucking corporation, the target of the liability discussion was the individual truck driver. In mock trial deliberations, jurors spoke about the driver and whether his behavior was egregious or whether he simply made a mistake that could “happen to you or me.” Notwithstanding the higher expectations they held of professional drivers than others on the road to avoid accidents, jurors recognized that mistakes happen. Through discussions, they looked through the perspective of the driver and, while they would hold him liable, developed the empathy that counterbalanced their sympathy toward the plaintiff’s injuries. This counterbalance also influenced discussions regarding damages, and jurors were willing to further consider the defense perspective on this topic as well.
Of course, in situations like this, it gives the defense no benefit to deny the manner in which the accident happened. Instead, counsel conceded the facts as they were, and simply told the jurors that they had to determine whether what happened rose to the legal definition of negligence. The defense was realistic in its expectations; we knew that liability would be found. But we also knew that giving jurors the opportunity to discuss and debate the defendant with a generally likable driver could only serve to our benefit when it came to valuing the case. In fact, liability was found, and the jury awarded one-fifth of the award requested by the plaintiff.
Therefore, when it comes to matters in which there is a question of whether to admit liability, the rule of thumb for defendants is to avoid doing so. Of course, that is unless faced with a situation in which admitting liability is considered the better option in order to try to avoid facts of the liability story from being presented to the jurors. Knowing that many jurors will create the story for themselves in the absence of facts, if what they could imagine is actually less damaging than what actually happened, the hope would be that you find a way to resolve the case before it gets into a jury’s hands. In those cases, damages will most likely be high, and, if the behavior is really that bad, the defense is likely facing punitive damages and the story will get out anyway.
Melissa M. Gomez is a jury consultant and owner of MMG Jury Consulting LLC. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her experience includes work on hundreds of jury trials in Philadelphia and across the country, with a focus on the psychology of juror learning, behavior and decision-making. She has more than a decade of expertise in research design and methodology, as well as in behavioral and communication skills training.
This posting is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed or interpreted as advice specific to any matter. Each case is different and no strategy applies uniformly to all. If you have any questions regarding jury psychology that you would like to see addressed in this blog, contact Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 215-292-7956.