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A study of juror attitudes in the post-Enron era shows that companies across the board will be paying the price in the courtroom for the corporate misdeeds that have dominated this year’s headlines. The study was conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, in partnership with the Los Angeles jury consulting firm DecisionQuest. Their goal was to gain insight into why jurors in states like California, Texas and Louisiana are so much more willing to beat up on big companies than jurors in states like Kansas and Delaware. To test their theories, the groups ran mock-jury-type focus groups in seven such locations this summer, coupled with a nationwide telephone survey. What they found was that anti-business sentiment is higher than ever, and it not only transcends geography, but in many instances, race, gender and class. “The scandals that have rocked a relatively small number of companies are having a huge spillover impact on how all corporations are being judged,” said Veta Richardson, executive director of the MCCA, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that promotes the hiring and advancement of minority and women lawyers. “People are much less inclined than before to give corporations the benefit of the doubt.” Of course, business has weathered crises of confidence in the past, such as the savings and loan debacle and insider trading scandals of the 1980s. But according to Arthur Patterson, a psychologist with DecisionQuest, this crisis is different, in a way that could affect jury verdicts across an unprecedented swath of issues and industries. “For the first time, jurors feel that they have been touched personally by the actions of the Enrons and WorldComs,” Patterson said. “They have seen their 401(k) plans devastated and they attribute it to bad actions by corporate America.” This new guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude shows up in some alarming ways. For instance, the study found that educated white males feel especially betrayed by the recent rash of scandals. As a result, what historically has been the biggest support base of large corporations has eroded dramatically. As one such juror told a researcher in a Baton Rouge, La., focus group, “You can steal an apple and go to jail for 20 years but [a corporate executive] can steal a million dollars” and get off scot free. “The man with the money and the power gets a free ride,” another juror agreed. ‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’ Such hostility toward corporate management is not limited to the companies in the news either. More than 80 percent of those polled agreed that “the events of Enron and WorldCom are just the tip of the iceberg.” “The typical juror today is not willing to accept that there are only a few bad apples,” Patterson said. “The good companies, not the bad ones, are considered the exception.” He said the recent wave of billion-dollar jury verdicts is a reflection of this absolute distrust of executives, not only in what they say but in what they do. “To punish them, jurors believe it takes billions with a ‘B.’ “ Many of the study’s subjects also expressed skepticism that the government is able to keep corporations in line. “If a company is big enough, it can circumvent the government agencies with the right lawyers and money,” read one typical juror comment. In fact, in the minds of many jurors, corporations seem to have become the equivalent of Big Brother, the all-powerful, all-knowing political party of George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Jurors not only believe that corporate executives wield tremendous power, but also that they know everything that happens on every loading dock, factory and warehouse. In such an environment, “no comment” is the worst thing a company can say, Richardson said. “People think that they’re hiding something.” And contrary to what many businesses may think, jurors in communities with a significant corporate presence, such as in the South and the Northeast, are actually the most hostile to corporations. Companies may provide jobs, but they also pollute, subjects said. Community outreach was viewed as a public relations gambit or tax write-off. ANTI-BUSINESS ATTITUDE This anti-business attitude spills over into how jurors view claims of employment discrimination, environmental racism and even class action litigation. Many white jurors today, the study found, are more willing to support discrimination claims, in part, because they do not want to be perceived of as racist, but also because they have more of an “us-versus-them” mentality, Patterson said. “They don’t want to break solidarity with the employee.” Jurors also empathized with the plight of the employee who experiences racism or sexism in the workplace. As one juror put it, “If you go over your boss’ head [with a complaint], you’re permanently on his shit list.” Yet subjects did not buy the standard corporate defense that senior management was unaware of the problem. Jurors assume that they know — and control — everything, Patterson said. On the plus side, jurors apparently do like to see that there are women and minorities among the senior executives. “It has absolutely nothing to do with a discrimination case legally,” Patterson said. “But it makes jurors think you’re OK.” Jurors are more inclined to give credence to a claim of environmental racism, in which a company is charged with locating its plants and other potentially polluting facilities in poorer ethnic areas. Although historically plaintiffs have had a tough time proving such cases, fully a third of the subjects polled said they thought such practices existed. The shift in juror outlook hurts corporations facing class action litigation as well. Jurors do not feel particularly well-disposed toward plaintiffs’ lawyers, who “make all the money while the plaintiffs get nothing.” But that does not necessarily translate into a dim view toward the merits of the case itself. Instead, jurors award more money to make up for the cut the lawyers will get. What such findings dictate is that corporate litigators would be smart to rethink their current strategies, Richardson said. “They can’t just choose white male jurors anymore, nor can they rely on so many of the myths that have determined jury selection in the past.” Patterson agreed: “Corporations need to be aware that juries are predisposed not to believe what they tell them.” This new-found antipathy, he added, “is going to be around for a while.” “For years, our jury research has shown an increasing distrust of corporate America,” he said. “Now jurors have validation for their distrust.” Juries React to Corporate Misconduct
76% Are angry with corporate America
88% Think senior executives are overpaid
76% Think the way executives are paid promotes corruption
73% Believe auditors do what their clients tell them, even if it is dishonest
71% Believe upper level employees are more prone to lie on the witness stand
78% Believe many companies destroy documents to avoid getting in trouble
85% Think large corporations hide the truth about the dangers of their products
SOURCE: Minority Corporate Counsel Association and DecisionQuest
( New York Law Journal, October 2002)

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