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Who was hurt? That’s how we know just whom to blame…

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

Most of us know that in order to manage reactions to a personal injury story the plaintiff begins with the bad acts of the defendant as opposed to the sad story of the plaintiff. This story order results in anger at the bad defendant rather than hopeless feelings for the sad plaintiff. Instead of ‘if only’ reactions to the injuries, the plaintiff wants to elicit active anger at the defendant’s choices. This increases damage awards and mobilizes jurors to “do something”.

New research has come out that may have ramifications for defendant corporations. Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Journalism looked at situations where someone is injured and a corporation is seen as being at fault.

  • They found that when customers or the public (as opposed to employees of either company) were injured, participants blamed the corporation more for the injuries. Severity of the crisis and the number of injuries was not related to participants tendency to blame the corporation.
  • The larger the corporation, the more blame participants placed.

The researchers frame this as indicative of the importance of various public relations actions, and while we think this is critically important, we also think it has huge ramifications for pre-trial research. This research says that if you are a large corporation and customers are injured, you will be judged more harshly. Pretrial research would need to explore ways to either mitigate or reinforce this tendency.

  • For the plaintiff, pretrial research would focus on ways to most effectively tell the story to highlight the bad acts of the defendant and to reinforce the natural tendency to blame the defendant when customers are hurt.
  • For the defense, the strategy to be tested would focus on highlighting defense efforts to ensure safety of their products and of their customers and how to communicate the importance of personal responsibility (if applicable) without seeming to blame the victim.

There are certainly many ways non-salient factors such as race, gender, age, nationality, and religion can play into the awarding of damages in trials like these. We’ve written about this a number of times.  When you have a case with significant personal injury and a defendant corporation—you owe it to the case to do solid pre-trial research regardless of which side you are on. Regardless of the facts of the case, unanticipated biases and judgments can come into play with an outcome very much unlike what you have anticipated.

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