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Has COVID-19 Affected Jurors’ Trust in Government Agencies and Safety Standards? – Part 2

As discussed in Part 1, Litigation Insights’ national survey1 on the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed that jurors have significantly more positive views of individual federal agencies than the federal government as a whole.

But do these attitudes apply for everyone? What personal factors influence these opinions? Part 2 of our investigation into COVID-19-era juror attitudes about government safety standards now seeks to analyze more deeply what affects the differences in jurors’ evaluations, along with the implications our findings have for defendants who rely on federal safety standards to support their cases.

Government Evaluations & Political Stance

We found that the differences between jurors’ opinions of the federal government and its agencies were not universal. In fact, the political party with which subjects most closely identified – political affiliation – emerged as one of the strongest determining factors in how they viewed the agencies in comparison to the federal government.

Specifically, Democrats displayed vast differences between their evaluations of the federal agencies and the federal government as a whole, but Republicans indicated minimal or even non-existent differences in opinion (see Figure 1). Regarding the handling of COVID-19, party lines also appeared to influence the difference in ratings between the federal government and the agencies. Specifically, as shown in Figure 2 below, Democrats and Independents have significantly higher evaluations of the federal agencies than the federal government, and in contrast, Republicans have significantly lower ratings of the agencies than the federal government.

government_views_political_stance_graph

Figure 1

government_COVID-19_job_political_stance_graph

Figure 2

So, what does this finding mean when we consider how it influences jurors and their thoughts in trial? First of all, the correlations we discovered are relevant for identifying potentially risky jurors in voir dire, juror questionnaires, and social networking searches of the jury pool. Likewise, it may be important to think about the political leaning of the jurisdiction and how to frame your message about relying on government safety standards. In more liberal jurisdictions, knowing that jurors’ attitudes toward government agencies are likely more positive than their attitude toward the federal government, it will help to avoid saying that your client “met government safety standards” and instead explain that it “adhered to EPA standards” or “followed CDC guidelines.” In conservative jurisdictions, however, these effects were much smaller. In fact, the most socially conservative participants actually had a statistically significantly more negative view of the EPA than of the federal government. So, consider the political leaning of the jurisdiction when developing your message.

Juror Opinions of Government Agencies’ Safety Standards

Interestingly, despite the negative views and distrust of the federal government, alongside mixed reviews of the agencies, it is crucial to jurors that companies comply with the agencies’ safety standards. Nearly 80% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “it is critically important for companies to be in compliance with all safety standards set by government agencies.”

So what explains the lack of strong support for the federal government and its agencies, yet the overwhelming support that companies need to be in compliance with their safety standards? Unfortunately for defendants, it’s because many jurors view these standards as the bare minimum. In fact, over 70% agreed or strongly agreed that “meeting safety standards set by government agencies is just the bare minimum; companies need to increase their standards to adequately protect people.” Our analyses revealed that jurors’ imperfect views of agencies carried over to beliefs that these agencies’ standards and policies are also imperfect.

As a result, companies that have relied on government safety standards will also want to offer scientific support for why those standards are in place and work to convince jurors that those standards are reasonable. And certainly, if your client surpassed government standards, emphasize those excesses.

Imperfect Agencies

Why is it that jurors are skeptical about safety standards set by government agencies? Our survey revealed that jurors believed these agencies are underfunded and are influenced by corporations and politics.

In fact, 81.5% of the sample agreed or strongly agreed that “Government agencies are oftentimes manipulated by large corporations”; in a similar question, only four percent said that this happens “rarely” or “never,” so this belief is widely held. And what seems to be an even larger issue for jurors is the influence of politics rather than science on government regulations. In our survey, 88% agreed or strongly agreed that “Government agencies are oftentimes influenced by politics rather than science.”

Furthermore, jurors don’t believe that government agencies get the funding necessary to keep Americans safe. When respondents were asked about whether each of the four agencies discussed here are underfunded, only 20-30% on average believed that they had the resources necessary to do their jobs. We found significantly strong positive correlations between these opinions and the belief that government safety standards reach only the bare minimum. That is, people who believe that the federal agencies are underfunded are more likely to believe that government safety standards are the bare minimum.

What Shapes Juror Opinions of Government Agencies?

As a corporate defendant relying on the safety standards of a government agency, it may be important to determine prospective jurors’ opinions about that government agency. But what is the best way to do that in voir dire? Obviously, asking about attitudes and experiences with the agency will be the most helpful. But our data also provides an indirect measure of this: political affiliation. For the CDC, EPA, and OSHA, political stance significantly affects views of these organizations; specifically, Democrats have more positive views of them than Republicans.

FDA

Interestingly, views toward the FDA are more nuanced. In a twist, Independents reported a significantly more negative view of the FDA than either Democrats or Republicans, with both of the latter groups holding matching views. From our own discussions with mock jurors and post-trial juror interviews, some tend to have strong opinions about outside influences on the FDA. As one trial juror explained in voir dire, “The FDA is a revolving door. Corporate executives go to the FDA, dismantle regulations for their company, and then go back to make millions of dollars.” It’s no surprise that strong attitudes like this can influence how jurors filter the information in a trial.

And with increased attention on the FDA in documentaries, docuseries, and satirical news, more and more jurors come into a trial with information on, and an opinion about, the FDA. For example, Dirty Money, The Bleeding Edge, The Weekly, and Last Week Tonight are just a few of the shows and documentaries on streaming platforms that have focused on the FDA. This increased access to in-depth information and commentary about the government agency seems to have formed strong attitudes. Consequently, for cases involving FDA regulations or approval, asking jurors about their media consumption regarding the FDA can help uncover any pre-existing attitudes that may be influential.

Final Thoughts

Our analyses showed that people have a negative opinion of the federal government, but they’re able to discern between the government and its agencies, and have more positive opinions about the agencies than the government. So, for company defendants that follow government safety standards, it’s important to argue your case to jurors in terms of the specific government agency. This is particularly important in liberal jurisdictions, while in very socially conservative jurisdictions, the distinction may not always be necessary. It is possible that these views may change if there is a change in leadership after the 2020 election, so we will continue to keep our finger on the pulse of jurors’ views of the federal government and its agencies.

Lastly, despite the more positive views of government agencies, those views aren’t exactly immaculate; in fact, some are quite mixed. Many jurors believe agencies are underfunded and influenced by corporations and politics. Therefore, saying your client met government standards isn’t always an effective argument alone. It’s still important to teach jurors where those standards came from, why they’re in place, and that they’re safe.

 

By: Nick Polavin, Ph.D. – Consultant

 

 

References
1 The survey collected data from 283 jury-eligible respondents.

 

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