Should plaintiffs' likeability or injury severity influence their chances of victory in lawsuits? The law says no, but any experienced trial lawyer will say otherwise. But what do the research data say?
I recently completed a study in which participants watched a video depicting a mock civil trial. Participants were 456 adults (80% White, 45.9% male, mean age = 38.09). In the trial, a customer sued a company for the actions of one of its employee (but the actual employee was not sued). Several different versions of the video were created by varying certain elements of the trial. For example, in some videos the plaintiff was nice while in other videos the plaintiff was rude. Also, in some videos the plaintiff suffered minor injuries while in other videos the injuries were severe. Other elements like the judge’s instructions, the lawyer’s statements, the employee’s actions, the company’s actions, etc. were the same. Each participant only saw ONE video.
The result indicated that participants who saw the likeable version of the plaintiff (customer) blamed the employee more than did the participants who saw the unlikeable version.
Likewise, participants who saw video that depicted a severe injury (permanent injury) assinged greater blame than did participants who saw a minor injury (temporary injury). Essentially, the employee was blamed more for causing a severe injury compared to causing a minor injury even though he did the exact same action in each scenario (it just happened that the customer was hurt more in one situation). This may seem commonsensical, but it’s important from a psychological and legal perspective (see “eggshell Plaintiff”).
But what does this have to do with the company? Well, it appears from a logistic regression analysis of the data that in some ways the more participants blamed the actual employee who did the act, the more they felt the company should be liable for the injuries.
Disclaimer: There are many differences between a real trial and the current study. Therefore, you should not rely on the results of this study in making decisions about your own case. But it never hurts to be nice!