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Does the public suddenly love Big Tobacco? Maybe not, but the latest National Law Journal/DecisionQuest Juror Outlook Survey suggests that some companies — airlines, asbestos manufacturers, drug makers among them — have worse images these days. After casting it as top corporate bad guy for almost a decade, most jurors seem ready to give Big Tobacco a fair shake in court, according to the annual survey. The news isn’t as good for the other industries, and a few more besides, that are more likely to face jurors who are already biased against them before they enter the courthouse. “I’m not surprised,” says William Ohlmeyer, responding to the survey results. Ohlmeyer, vice president and associate general counsel for the Philip Morris Cos., credits changes in the way the industry does business, added to the lower profile of Big Tobacco in the press in the past few years. “There has always been a lot of support for personal responsibility when the question is whether people in these lawsuits are entitled to recover damages,” he says. Respondents were asked to imagine that they were called to court and selected as jurors. They were then asked: “If the lawsuit was about a person who was suing a tobacco company for illnesses caused by smoking, would you tend to vote for … ?” More than half, 53 percent, said they would vote for the tobacco company, in contrast to fewer than three in 10 — 28 percent — who said they would tend to side with the plaintiff. Another 19 percent were unsure or refused to answer. Whom do you know? Respondents were then asked a follow-up question: Would most people they know vote for the plaintiff or the tobacco company? According to Michael Biek, a DecisionQuest trial consultant who analyzed the survey data, the second question is intended to reveal biases the respondents may not be willing to attribute to themselves. In the case of the hypothetical tobacco lawsuit, fewer than four in 10 (37 percent) said that people they know would vote for the tobacco company, fewer than those who said they would vote for the plaintiff (44 percent). The news wasn’t as good for several other industries in some of the very cases they are most likely to face. In a case involving a person suing a pharmaceutical company for side effects caused by a prescription drug, nearly half (47 percent) say they would vote for the plaintiff. A quarter (25 percent) said they would vote for the defendant. In recent years, drug companies have faced an increased number of personal injury lawsuits over drugs recalled under FDA pressure, including the anticholesterol drug Baycol; Rezulin, used in the treatment of diabetes; Propulsid, an anti-heartburn drug; Lotronex, used to treat irritable bowel syndrome; the painkiller Duract; and diet drugs Redux and Pondimin. The news is even worse for companies that once manufactured asbestos, many of which have been driven into bankruptcy in the last two decades by the threat of multimillion-dollar verdicts. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said they would likely vote for the plaintiff in a case involving injuries caused by asbestos exposure. Just 12 percent said they would favor the company. The remaining 24 percent were unsure or declined to respond. When asked what people they know would do, seven in 10 (71 percent) said they would favor the plaintiff. Lawyers for American Airlines and United Airlines can hope for an even break from jurors in lawsuits over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but airport security companies may have a problem. In a lawsuit involving a hijacking, three in 10 (31 percent) said they would tend to vote for a plaintiff suing an airline. Almost twice as many (58 percent) said they would vote for a plaintiff suing a security company. Most respondents (83 percent) had some awareness of the infamous spilled McDonald’s coffee case, which most of them considered a bad decision. This finding squares with the experience of trial lawyers who say potential jurors often refer to it in voir dire. FORD AND FIRESTONE A similar number (84 percent) were aware of lawsuits involving Ford Explorers or Firestone tires. But while the two companies received terrible publicity from rollover accidents, more respondents said that Ford and Firestone have done “a good job” (43 percent) than the number who said they have done “a bad job” (30 percent) in dealing with problems with Firestone tires. Nevertheless, nearly eight in 10 (78 percent) agreed that “the people suing Ford and Firestone should probably be paid money damages if they were injured in an accident that they say was caused by defective Firestone tires or a dangerous vehicle design.” Companies may also have to worry about juror attitudes in employment cases. Only three in 10 agreed that “most big companies treat all employees fairly.” On the other hand, two-thirds (67 percent) agreed that “discrimination based on things like race and gender is still a fact of life at many companies.” And one-third (34 percent) agreed that “when companies have to lay people off, older workers and minorities are usually the first to go.” Two in five (42 percent) disagreed, and the rest (23 percent) were unsure or declined to answer. Perhaps as a result, the respondents were fairly evenly divided over whom to believe in an employment case. A quarter (26 percent) agreed that “if a person claims that they were treated unfairly by a supervisor at work, I would tend to believe the employee rather than the supervisor.” A third (33 percent) disagreed, and another 41 percent said they were unsure. Bieck of DecisionQuest says he is struck by the number of people willing to admit biases in favor of one party or another without knowing any specifics of the case. The National Law Journal/DecisionQuest Juror Outlook Survey reports the findings of a random, nationwide survey of 1,007 adults interviewed by telephone from Oct. 15 to Oct. 29, 2001. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent. Related chart: Corporate Defendant Popularity Poll

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