Given jurors’ experiences with air travel in the last 10 years, one might wonder about their perceptions of the airlines, aviation industry, aircraft safety, or government regulations, and to what standards they hold manufacturers and crew members. Ultimately, all people’s experiences and attitudes color the way they perceive information, evidence and the story of your case. These experiences also influence whether they find witnesses to be credible, truthful, or knowledgeable. To answer these questions and attain a better understanding of how jurors will perceive any party in aviation litigation, Litigation Insights administered a comprehensive, custom survey to mock jurors nationwide from February to June 2012, such that the sample is representative of actual juror demographics after hardships than a random survey of the general population. Litigation Insights’ aviation survey collected data regarding jurors’ experiences and beliefs about aviation manufacturers, the airlines, pilot and crew training, the FAA, TSA and racial profiling, among the array of topics. A selection of results from that survey follows.
Most attorneys and consultants involved in litigation fly frequently each year, earning tens of thousands of frequent flier miles and experiencing both the best and worst the airlines have to offer. In an aviation-related case, it’s important to remember that the air travel warrior title does not apply to the jurors who will serve on your case. Forty-three percent of jurors did not travel by air even once per year and 51% flew only one to five times per year, mostly for leisure. Supporting our survey findings, a 2008 Gallup poll found that 56% of Americans surveyed had not taken a commercial airline flight in the prior 12 months. That same Gallup poll in 2007 asked Americans if they were satisfied or dissatisfied with the job the nation’s major airlines were doing, resulting in 72% being satisfied.
How Do Jurors View Airlines and Safety?
Jurors were asked on a seven-point scale about their views, positive or negative, of the aviation industry in general, as well as their opinions of smaller, regional carriers more specifically, to assess whether their foundational attitudes tended more toward either polarity. As noted above, the general jury pool consists of relatively inexperienced air travelers. Because of the infrequency of their air travel, over 30% of jurors were undecided or neutral about their attitudes about regional carriers (having flown regional carriers even less frequently than large, national airlines) and over 20% reported being unsure of their views about airlines overall. Of those jurors who did hold an opinion, over 50% were positive views of the airline industry, generally, and nearly 45% held positive views of regional carriers. Only a minority of jurors reported negative general opinions of any carriers.
Even though jurors on average held both major and regional carriers in positive regard, when it came to safety, jurors’ attitudes were more polarized. For the industry overall, just over 40% of jurors believed flights with major carriers were safe, but nearly 50% were suspect about airline safety. In a similar pattern to their overarching uncertainty about regional carriers in general, over 30% remained unsure about thesafety of regional carriers. Nearly 35% stated regional carriers were safe, but a nearly equal proportion of jurors believed they are unsafe. Interestingly, overall more jurors rated the large, national carriers as slightly to extremely unsafe compared to ratings of regional airlines, but this could also be attributed to jurors’ lack of familiarity and experience with regional carriers in comparison to the major airlines. Ultimately, these results are encouraging in suggesting that a good proportion of the jury pool will be neutral and not necessarily predisposed against an airline defendant. Yet, as the following data suggests, their interest will be attuned to evidence about airlines’ standards for safety.
Jurors’ Views on Regulations and Government Agencies
As the above summary revealed, jurors were fairly trusting of carriers overall. However, when it came to regulation, their views were a bit more critical. For the most part, jurors were satisfied with the current level of government regulation in terms of the environment of safety it has created thus far. But jurors were looking to the future with expectations of increased safety, standards and compliance. For example, over 30% believed the FAA was doing an extremely or moderately good job in keeping the traveling public safe and only 15% rated the FAA as extremely or moderately poor at its job.
However, jurors’ views of the federal government and its agencies were at an all-time low (according to a Fall 2011 Gallup poll), so although they rated the FAA as doing a good job, jurors did not believe that the FAA was the “gold standard” for safety. Indeed, as the chart below demonstrates, many jurors viewed the FAA as the “bare minimum” and expected to see and hear how airlines and manufacturers have gone above and beyond the government standards for safety.
Jurors’ standards for aircraft manufacturers were equally as high. Over 37% of respondents believed that aircraft manufacturers should be held to a much higher standard of responsibility than other types of manufacturers to ensure the safety of their products. These attitudes can translate into critical decision-making in trial as jurors review evidence about safety, training and maintenance issues, for example. In fact, over 28% of jurors responded that they would begin a trial with a slight bias toward the plaintiff in an aviation-related case where a plaintiff claimed to have been injured.
Jurors’ opinions of the aviation industry remain fairly positive, but their expectations of liability, and responsibility for standards and safety, are inflated. The subgroup of jurors who could explicitly report a bias against an airline defendant represents those who have a conscious understanding of their pre-existing attitudes. But, negative experiences, media coverage and other personal factors can create implicit attitudes that jurors are unable to explicitly report, let alone account for their influence on decision-making. While it is difficult to say how many more jurors may harbor negative implicit attitudes about the aviation industry, it is important to acknowledge that these biases exist, particularly when it comes to safety and the standards to which jurors hold any aviation corporation. These initial results suggest that jurors will be listening closely to corporate witnesses for assurances that the airline’s culture of safety meets and, whenever possible, exceeds government standards.
By: Jill Leibold, Ph.D., Director – Jury Research