Public Opinion and Corporate America: A Problem for the Courtroom? Let’s Be Specific

Even before BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s 2009-2010 recalls and the banking crisis that emerged in 2007, public opinion towards Corporate America over the past 10 years has diminished. Most notable were the earlier scandals involving Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom, Halliburton, the Ford/Firestone recall, etc. Poll data[1] reveals that a majority of Americans, 52%, assigned Corporate America a grade of D or F for honesty and ethical conduct. The overwhelming majority of Americans (90%+) believed that the business decisions of corporate executives are driven by personal gain, corporate profit and market share over competitors. When making business decisions, public sentiment indicates that the public good matters little to corporate executives. Recent Gallup Poll data[2] revealed that Americans have little confidence in the banking industry with only 23% indicating that they have confidence in banks, representing a significant drop from 41% in pre-recession 2007. Today the American public, prospective jurors in civil litigation, apparently have little regard for Corporate America.

How might this sentiment be reflected in juror’s behavior in the courtroom? Referring to data collected by Delta Litigation Consulting, Inc. over the course of 18 months during 2009-2011, research participants (N=207) were asked to report the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement that Corporations should be held to a higher standard of legal responsibility than individuals.


These data revealed that more than half of participants, 55%, agreed with this proposition; a position that runs counter to a basic legal tenet. The picture presented here may not be favorable for those representing big companies, that the public maintains negative sentiment regarding Corporate America and that prospective jurors are willing to hold companies to a higher legal standard.

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An Insurmountable Problem? No.

While this sentiment seemingly bodes poorly for corporate defendants, it is important to understand that global attitudes regarding Corporate America are not necessarily accurate predictors of jurors’ behavior or verdict preference. For instance, while poll data suggests that global attitudes regarding the banking industry are unfavorable, Americans’ confidence in their own bank is high at 58%, with many reporting a great deal (31%) or quite a lot (27%) of confidence[3]. While global attitudes regarding the banking industry are poor, attitudes regarding banks more specifically – a respondent’s own bank – yield a different picture.

When considering the role of public sentiment and attitudes regarding a company it is important to understand the role of attitude specificity. While the potential influence of global attitudes are important to consider, primarily as a source of creating schemas[4] among jurors, it is important to recognize that there is a strong relationship between attitude specificity and actual behavior. The more specific issues are regarding attitude, the better the ability to predict future behavior. For instance, asking a person if they are in favor of the death penalty yields a response to a global attitude. Asking that same person if they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of treason, for women, for persons convicted of murder under the age of 18, for mentally retarded persons, etc. would yield attitudes that are more specific. As a result, it is always important to recognize that trial strategy should not be unduly influenced by global attitudes regarding Corporate America or big companies. Instead, jurors’ focus should always be brought to this defendant, this plaintiff, and these facts.

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