How U.S. Juries Will Be Impacted by COVID-19
By Katherine E. Morley, Esq.
For over a year, Americans have been managing and reacting to the impact of a global pandemic, which has changed nearly every facet of our lives – how we work, how we worship, how we shop, with whom we interact. Many of our world views, political opinions, and financial decisions have been altered due to the impact of COVID-19. Each individual’s experience with COVID-19 is different, and these unique disruptors will likely carry over to jury service.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began, many courthouses across the country have significantly altered their operations in response. Many courts initially limited their proceedings to only the most essential and time-sensitive matters, such as arraignments, bond hearings, appointment of guardians, and restraining order hearings. As time has gone on, several jurisdictions across the country are slowly resuming some of their normal court operations. To aid in this return to the new “normal” court proceedings, many states have planned detailed strategies for how to safely resume jury trials. Likewise, about 120 courthouses across Virginia have plans for the safe resumption of jury trials, which were approved by the Supreme Court of Virginia. Many of these courts have successfully held criminal and a few civil jury trials.
Now that courthouses can safely hold jury trials again, the next big question is what impact will COVID-19 have on juries? Jurors, like everyone else in the world, are not immune from the profound force of COVID-19. The headline is not that the civil jury trial system will be different once jury trials re-commence. But rather, the headline is how big is this impact and what does it mean for your case and your client. According to research conducted by U.S. Legal Support, individuals across the country consistently show that the impact and concern for COVID-19 influences jury verdicts in a new way.
There are common themes in post-COVID-19 jurors that can cause them to be more likely to find for the plaintiff, award higher damages, or generally subscribe to pro-plaintiff attitudes. The main characteristics are if the jurors have: 1) experienced more overall disruption to their lives due to the pandemic; 2) personally contracted COVID-19 or if a friend or family member has contracted the virus; 3) expressed greater concern that they or someone they know will be infected with the virus; 4) concerns about their/their family’s financial stability as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and, 5) expressed greater concern about their health, if they were called to serve on a jury in a courthouse. These are concerns we have all had at some time during the pandemic, but each person’s experience with COVID-19 is unique. These concerns will grow and change as the pandemic continues, but these general concerns and opinions must be discussed with each potential juror during the jury selection process.
The next big consideration is how do these COVID-19 concerns playout in different types of cases, be it medical malpractice, personal injury, asbestos litigation, or toxic torts. Medical malpractice lawsuits see the biggest changes due to a revamping of public perception, which logically follows from the increased attention on healthcare and healthcare providers all over the country throughout the pandemic. Mr. James L. McGarity, M.S. of R&D Strategic Solutions has done extensive research into these topics for MRC and its clients. On average, 23.4% of people find medical malpractice actions more important than before the pandemic. On average, 37% of individuals have a more positive opinion of physicians and healthcare providers because of their efforts to battle the COVID-19 virus. Signs posted across the country stating “heroes work here” at hospitals and medical centers to offer support to the medical teams’ efforts to bring the pandemic to end, have greatly changed the public’s perception for the better. MRC is proud to represent many of these “healthcare heroes” responsible for leading Virginia’s continued response to the pandemic.
Personal injury actions have seen significant changes in public opinion due to the pandemic, but these changes have not been as positive of a trend. For personal injury lawsuits against corporations, on average, 18.9% of Americans believe these are more important since the start of the pandemic. On average, 24.7% of individuals have a more negative opinion of large corporations and corporate executives since the start of the pandemic. This is likely due in large part to the financial recession the pandemic spurred. The area least affected by COVID-19 is asbestos and toxic tort litigation. On average, only 12.4% of Americans find these cases to be more important since the start of the pandemic.
Given these significant changes in public perception and public opinion, the pre-pandemic case analysis, strategy, and risk assessment must be adjusted to remain accurate and relevant. The delays in scheduling of civil jury trials around the country have given attorneys the time to re-examine the thoughts and feelings of the public and how that impacts their cases. Performing jury research into all these post-COVID-19 changes to jurors is a necessity to prepare for the return of jury trials. We must stay ahead of the curve to anticipate these growing trends in public perception and incorporate them into our trial strategies. Like everything else, trials will look different in the post-COVID-19 world.
COVID-19 has and continues to present real challenges to conducting safe, fair, and effective jury trials. But the delays have created the opportunity for MRC and its clients to assess and adjust how to best respond to the impact of COVID-19 and how it will influence potential jurors. As post pandemic civil jury trials get closer, we recognize the importance of understanding the parties involved, the jury pool in that specific location, and the case to be tried to gain even more reliable insights into how COVID-19 has changed the landscape of litigation. In that way, MRC and its clients will continue to develop a new empirically grounded basis for deciding the best path for their litigation, in this post-pandemic environment. The COVID-19 effect is a constantly changing force, but MRC is staying ahead of it to implement strategies to best respond to this new world.