During a particularly lengthy hardship and jury selection process recently in the New York City Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL) court, a client of ours brought in some interesting research his firm had conducted over the past four years in that venue. For asbestos cases that saw a plaintiff verdict, they documented the length of the trials and the jury damages awards, as they had the suspicion that the longer the trial, the higher the award.
This was an intriguing hypothesis, since many of our dust cases (asbestos, silica, coal, talc) can exceed six weeks – which, according to most jurors, is an interminable amount of time.
What Are Some Possible Factors at Play?
Perhaps the primacy of the information presented to jurors – with the plaintiff putting on his or her case first – could influence jurors in this regard. After all, they’re hearing the plaintiff perspective day after day when their minds are still relatively “fresh,” before the wear and tear of weeks listening to evidence. Should there be diminishing returns at a critical tipping point in time, where jurors become overtaxed and shift from effortful thinking to mental depletion, this would occur toward the end of the plaintiff’s case and before the defense has the opportunity to present its side.
On the other hand, one key factor stood out that could confound this client’s hypothesis about trial length predicting damages: Several cases in the dataset had more than one plaintiff. And as we’ll discuss below, there’s research that suggests more plaintiffs can increase average damages awards. Certainly, during deliberations at our mock trials for toxic tort cases (and others), it’s inevitable that jurors will ask, “Were there other people who also got sick?” It’s natural to look to a plaintiff’s surroundings – including co-workers and family – for supporting evidence of exposure and causation. So, if multiple people bring the same claim, perhaps it is easier for jurors to make the leap to a common cause. In other words, if having more plaintiffs tends to increase the length of a trial, it could be that it’s not so much the trial length affecting damages as it is that higher number of plaintiffs.
Yet, a mock trial project that spans a day or two might end with a defense verdict, while a four-month trial on the same case might not. So how influential is trial duration?
What Does Prior Research on Jury Damages Awards Say?
Interestingly, researchers investigating verdict outcomes point to several factors as distinguishers of verdict likelihood and damages awards. Some research points to injury severity as the strongest predictor of jury damage awards.1 Others discuss the effect of multiple plaintiffs on a jury’s ability to discern the causal and injury differences between plaintiffs, at times leading to greater damages. (This would certainly support our own experiences with mock jurors, as mentioned above.) In fact, one key study revealed that a defendant was more likely to be found liable as the number of plaintiffs increased, but that the ideal number of plaintiffs was four.2 (It appeared that damages began to decrease with more than four plaintiffs, perhaps because it became too difficult for jurors to distinguish between each plaintiff and their injuries.)
However, no empirical studies on trial length’s effects on jurors’ verdicts/damages were available. It could be due to the lack of information in the public realm about trial length, or the impossibility of studying that factor in a laboratory setting – or, it could be that trial length simply isn’t related to damages awards.
A New Statistical Look
Given the non-existent research on trial length and verdict size, the New York attorney’s question remained. So, we decided to analyze the NYCAL data our client’s firm collected to assess whether there was a correlation between trial length and damages awards.
The awards data ranged from $0 (in five different defense verdicts) to $190 million (for a five-plaintiff consolidated trial). Trial length ranged from three to 18 weeks, and the number of plaintiffs ranged from one to nine. We conducted a partial correlation between trial length and damage award size, controlling for the effect (if any) of multiple plaintiffs.
Sure enough, with the number of plaintiffs essentially removed from the equation, there was no significant correlation between trial length and damages.
Interestingly, the non-existent relationship between trial length and damages appeared to be due to the strong influence of the number of plaintiffs on trial length (r = .68, p < .01) as well as the marginal influence of the number of plaintiffs on damages (r = .34, p = .06). In other words, the number of plaintiffs in a case related more to the length of trial and even somewhat to damages than any direct relationship between trial length and size of damages.
While far from serving as conclusive evidence that trial length doesn’t affect jury damages decisions, the existing data does not support such a hypothesis. Based on what we know, jury verdict decisions are complex, affected by the injury, the causation evidence, and the number of plaintiffs – either consolidated or within the same case.
So while you may find that a complex trial with multiple plaintiffs naturally results in a longer trial and is certainly more tiring for both attorneys and jurors, it does not appear that the length of a trial itself has a direct relationship to how much jurors are willing to award.
By: Jill Leibold, Ph.D. – Director, Jury Research
1 Greene, E., & Bornstein, B.H. (2003). Determining damages: The psychology of jury awards. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
2 Horowitz, I. A., & Bordens, K. S. (2000). The consolidation of plaintiffs: The effects of number of plaintiffs on jurors’ liability decisions, damage awards, and cognitive processing of evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(6), 909-918.