Juror Trust of Federal Agencies and Safety Standards in Defense Cases

In today’s business landscape – in industries from manufacturing to banking – government agencies play an ever more important role in regulating products, warnings, workplace environments, financial transactions and the like. Defendants frequently must point to the controlling government agency and its regulations to show compliance, but often also to convince jurors that the government agency’s standards were safe and not merely bare minimums. For example, in an asbestos exposure case, a manufacturer’s compliance with OSHA and NIOSH standards is important in showing the company’s safety culture and adherence to regulations. In environmental cases, jurors hear about whether EPA standards were stringent enough to keep people safe from toxins. The list continues, as do jurors’ doubts about whether the government is really doing enough. Clients often ask us whether jurors really trust those government agencies and, thus, if a company can convince jurors that government regulations are based in science and keep people not only safe, but very safe. If jurors don’t trust the government and its regulations, how can they trust a company who relies on government standards to keep people safe? Is that really safe enough? This edition of Insights explores jurors’ opinions of federal agencies most frequently discussed in today’s litigation.

Overall Evaluation of Government

A sample across the U.S. of mock juror data, where respondents were asked whether their view of the federal government in Washington was favorable or unfavorable, returned negative results. Although the favorability ratings of the federal government varied across the different venues nationally – from more Conservative communities to those dominated by Liberal views – those who viewed the federal government favorably ranged from a low of six percent to a high of 23 percent. In contrast, negative views of the federal government were somewhat more consistent across the nation, ranging from a low of 40% to a high of 70% negative opinions. The chart below highlights the average across venues – 16% favor the federal government and 56% hold it in disfavor.

 Favorability Ratings

Mock juror data varies slightly from a random national sample in that the jurors are vetted to fit demographically the profile of jurors who would survive hardships in an actual trial; however, these findings align with a similar trend of national survey organizations of the general population. For example, a recent Pew Research study (Jan. 2013) revealed that 26% of respondents believed they could always, or most of the time, trust the government. The study also reported a majority of Americans – 73% – could only trust the government sometimes or never. Moreover, Pew’s March 2013 study reiterated this finding: only 28% of respondents held favorable views of the federal government.

Government Regulations and Safety Standards

When it comes to the safety standards set by various government agencies, mock jurors were somewhat more trusting, but a sizeable proportion remained cynical. For instance, 36% of respondents did not trust the government when it says something is safe. The good news is that 43% found government safety standards to be trustworthy. Indeed, nearly 40% believed that the government does a good job of protecting the public from harmful substances in the environment. They were, however, more divided in their opinions about the influence and relationship between large corporations and government agencies, with 40% stating that government regulations in the U.S. were manipulated by large corporations most of the time. But, over half of the respondents believed the government was manipulated only rarely.

Opinions of OSHA, the EPA and the FDA

Jurors overall had more favorable views of specific government agencies than they did for the federal government as a whole. Mock jurors’ ratings of the EPA varied by venue, with the more conservative Midwestern towns having a lower opinion than coastal regions. On average, 33% of mock jurors stated positive views of the EPA and its regulations, while slightly fewer (26%) held negative opinions. Indeed, only 13% distrusted the EPA’s safety standards while 58% trusted the EPA when it says something is safe. Along the same line, mock jurors held the FDA in fairly high regard. Only three percent believe the FDA is doing a poor job ensuring medications they approve are safe, while a wide majority (69%) believe the FDA does a good to very good job. Mock jurors tended to have positive views of OSHA and believed workplace regulations keep workers safe. When asked whether OSHA does a good job of keeping workers safe, 62% rated the agency as very good to average, with only four percent stating it did a poor job.

Conclusion

Even though mock jurors and national samples of U.S. respondents disfavor the federal government generally, they hold individual federal protective agencies in higher regard and entrust those agencies with their health and safety. The subset of mock jurors who harbor particularly negative views of individual agencies, on average, was small and should create an identifiable group of strikeable jurors during jury selection. Although it is true that jurors tend to hold generally negative views of large corporations, when those companies rely on government agencies for safety standards, it helps to garner more trust in the company’s compliance.

 

Jill L  By: Jill Leibold, Ph.D. – Director of Jury Research